menu/ THE BIOCHEMISTRY OF HOPE

I often think that most people die of boredom, depression, despair, of not loving and not being loved. Perhaps we die mainly of having run out of reason to live. On the other hand, while the connection between mind and physiology is undeniable (though Western medicine still canít quite get it), one can also push it too far.

No matter how enlightened one becomes, the body can apparently last only so long. Caroline Myss says: "Biography becomes biology," but even she doesnít "reach for immortality."

As someone said, there is no such thing as "false hope."

Hope is a physiologically beneficial state, even if there is no logical basis for it. Even if we eliminated all disease, learned to be happy and fulfilled practically all the time, and maybe had organ transplants thanks to transgenic pigs, one day we would still keel over due to mitochondrial failure. Our energy-producing organelles appear to be the weak link.

While our nuclear DNA is wonderfully protected, unfortunately we seem stuck with poor mitochondrial DNA repair capacity, and can take only so many free-radical "hits."

I do know that the "immortalist" school of thought does have some answers to that, proposing gene therapy, as well as putting our brains on the hard drive (Iím not kidding!), but for our generation at least, death and taxes seem a certainty, regardless of spiritual development.

Still, it is amazing to contemplate the power of mind to keep us healthy. As long as you eliminate junk food and eat enough quality protein (animal protein is much better assimilated) and raw food, diet probably is not anywhere as important for cancer and heart disease prevention as staying happy.

Diet may be primary for adult-onset diabetes, but thatís probably the only disease where the diet link is obvious: too many carbs, blood sugar sky-high, too much insulin, cells canít accept any more glucose, insulin stops working.

Almost everything else, we see depression lurking. And then, who knows, even in diabetes depression may be hiding in the background -- why do those people eat a whole bagful of cookies or a whole cake in one sitting?


So I believe that indirectly depression is the #1 killer, across the board, and possibly all over the world (itís sadly ironic that one can get just as severe immunosupppression when depression is combined with excess sugar as when it is combined with malnutrition, especially protein malnutrition).


We can certainly die of depression, of the physiological devastation caused by negative emotions. And interestingly, many nutrients that have been found to be life-extending are also described as mood lifters.

positive emotions equals a better health + longer life

Closely knit communities, social and/or religious, appear to provide the affection and sense of being needed that may account for the longevity of their members. And itís well known that pet owners are healthier and likewise enjoy a longer life expectancy. So do married men, benefiting from the nurturing of their wives. For women, however, the situation is more complex; single women do very well as long as they have close women friends.

Deeply religious people also enjoy better health and longer life, showing that in a sense it doesnít matter where your positive emotions come from: a relationship with your mate, friends, pets, work, or, indeed, from having a personal relationship with God. However, I repeat: I donít believe that we could live forever just by thinking positive and experiencing lots of positive emotions. Sooner or later free radicals would take their toll regardless.

But by staying happy, and I mean happy in a deep sense, the soul sense of leading a meaningful, productive, loving and maximally fulfilling life, we could probably live much longer and stay free of major diseases, until the free radical-caused mitochondrial failure forces a quick exit. When? At 120, or at 300?

Some scientists refuse to speculate, seeing the rapid progress in the field of anti-aging medicine. In spite of the official philosophy of Western medicine, unofficially many doctors probably know that emotional health is primary.

Iíve come across this message from a cancer survivor: "At the age of 28 I was told I had maybe six months to live. I just turned 43. In that time I have given birth to a daughter who is now 12. My oncologist gave me one hope. This is what he said:

"If you think you are going to die, chances are you will. If you think you are going to live, you have just increased your chances significantly. Eighty percent of your cure is your attitude."

And some doctors have expressed the fear that saying to a patient, "You have only 3 months to live" acts practically like a voodoo curse. It can produce almost instantaneous deterioration, rapid aging and decline until the patient does, indeed, "die on time." It doesnít happen in all cases - for one thing, we have learned to seek a second opinion - but the fact that it can happen at all shows us the power of "programming."

But I also think we have some built-in defenses against negative programming. And this relates to what Ariel refers to as connecting with oneís higher self. I think there is something at the core of each person that I like to call the Observer. Maybe thatís not the best term - "a small still voice" is more poetic - but for me "Observer" fits because I sense a certain detachment about the Observer.

The Observer is never depressed, never sucked into insanity, and best of all, never damaged by the various traumas that happen to us. The Observer watches the traumas and KNOWS thatís not right, but if we get hysterical in response, the Observer also calmly points out that thatís wrong, with a sort of "here I go again" internal little sarcasm. If we start doing something obsessive, like accumulating possessions, the observer calmly points out that all this stuff is really a pile of trash.

And I think the Observer is FEARLESS even in the face of death, because the Observer is terrifically curious about any adventure, and this is perhaps the ultimate adventure to watch. I feel that the Observer part of me is so intensely curious about life that there are times when I may be weeping over some crisis while the Observer is dancing, happy to be learning so much.


The Observer throws a lifeline to me, in the shape of the motto, "Do not grow bitter, grow better."


Life certainly becomes less stressful if we are in close touch with our Observer, and that should have a delaying effect on aging, definitely. Maybe itís "the Buddha at the center." Monks, both Christian and Buddhist, often have very unlined, youthful faces. But maybe Deepak Chopra is onto something when he says we are programmed about when old age is supposed to start and how "old folks" act. Not long ago, health books suggested living to 100 as the ultimate in longevity. Now I see more and more books and articles proclaiming 120 as our natural life span.

Menopause is now very commonly referred to as the beginning of the second half of life, and not the last third of life. Some ads still represent it as the autumn of life, with images of falling leaves, but most advertisers have caught on to this being a turn-off. The photos of menopausal women increasingly present them as fit, even athletic, youthful and cheerful.


If we learn to see MENOPAUSE AS THE HIGH NOON OF A WOMANíS LIFE, as the visionary pioneer of HRT, Dr. Robert Wilson (Feminine Forever) suggested, the new sense of meaning and possibilities could indeed provide the kind of hope and optimism that is bound to affect health.


I do wonder if a sort of "social hypnosis" does prevail when it comes to retirement age. For some people, especially men, retirement is literally a death sentence. Remember, just like every cell in our body, a human being needs to constantly receive the message: "You are needed." Retirement sends a very strong message: "You are no longer needed." If the common age of retirement became 75, then the definition of "old" would probably move up to 80 or 85.

And if celebrity journalists and other visible persons keep on working past 80, as I suspect Mike Wallace will, our mental set is bound to change. As for physical debility, do you doubt for one moment that Mike Wallace is on good hormone replacement? I am not saying that positive attitude can do it all.

Thatís just a start, and a large building block of total health. Itís interesting that quite a few people seem seriously THREATENED just by the idea of life extension, of people typically living past 100 or 110 as today we typically live past 70, and most women expect to make it at least to their late eighties or nineties.

Of course weíd have to have a later retirement age (if ever; personally, I donít see any point in retiring - just changing to the kind of work you like most), or multiple careers, but so what? I canít understand why some people are screaming that early dying is best, (they even point out that smokers are actually saving society money by dying younger!), and exaggerating the supposed dangers of HRT and other life extension measures. I think that weíd have so much more wisdom and true joy of life if people after 50-60 stayed in good health and continued to be productive for several decades. Itís the older people who really appreciate life.

When I look at youngsters (these days anyone under 30 is a youngster to me), I am startled at the amount of depression I see in so many of those faces. It is as we grow older that we learn to focus on the positive and be truly grateful for being alive. Carl Jung observed that the second half of life is the time of greatest growth and individuation.

It is a great adventure to look forward to, a kind of second birth into true adulthood. It is not only that we are liberated from the burden of procreation; it is that it takes such a long time to learn a few simple lessons about life. We all seem to be late bloomers when it comes to learning how to be happy.

Now, there is the biochemistry of depression, and the biochemistry of hope and joy.

Here is what Deepak Chopra says: "To think a thought is to practice not only brain chemistry, but body chemistry. Every thought you have, every idea you entertain, sends a chemical message to the core of cellular awareness. Putting attention on a word, which is the symbolic expression of an idea, is therefore magical. It transforms the invisible into the visible. Remember, the word becomes the flesh. The quantum event becomes the neuropeptide. [A word can] cause a positive transformation in your consciousness which will spontaneously change your physiology, and that change in physiology will spontaneously bring about a change in your life experiences."


isnít it ironic that we worry so much about the carcinogens in our food + so little about carcinogenic emotions?


After endless profiles of centenarians whose main health practice includes never going to a doctor, having a drink a day, a pound of chocolate a week (Jeanne Calment), and above all an active mind (generally a high IQ is a good predictor of longevity), a feisty attitude, and a sense of humor, no one can argue that the secret of long life is this or that diet, and just so much exercise, and these particular supplements, and so forth.

Yes, diet and exercise do have an impact, and I think we are on the verge of creating more sophisticated supplements that truly work, but itís probably always going to be secondary next to the mental/emotional factors.

We donít just believe, we KNOW that thoughts and emotions have a tremendous impact on our health, probably greater than anything else, and that the biochemistry of hope and joy is the biochemistry of health and longevity. It would not be all that surprising if ultimately THE VERY EXPECTATION OF A LONG AND PRODUCTIVE LIFE had a tremendous influence on actual longevity, together with the emotional strength and joy that come from being connected to the center of oneís existence (whether we call it the higher self or soul or "Observer" or whatever makes sense to us).

The factor of having a nurturing relationship with a life partner (or, for women, with a network of female friends) is also very important, according to a recent book, "Secrets of the Superyoung." Having a good relationship with oneself probably falls into this category, too - can you nurture yourself as much as you can nurture somebody you love? Ask a mother if she can imagine treating herself as she would a beloved child. But suppose that the effect is not all that strong. It is possible that the power of viruses and free radicals is ultimately what counts.

My father liked to point out that even if we wiped out all disease, cosmic radiation would still destroy us in the end. Given our mortality, is there a rationale for living in a soul-nourishing way?

I think so, because joy is its own reward. And it makes us more capable of connecting with others, with nature, with all that is. As William Wordsworth writes, "With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things." And as someone whose name escapes me said, "We werenít born to survive, only to live."

a comment

About the Observer: while I read your comments, I kept thinking "soul ... spirit", "higher self", even "Guardian angel" ... about monksí faces looking more youthful: Such faces really seem full of light, and joy. Itís wonderful to look at such faces. I knew someone who met the Dalai Lama, and she said all she could do in his presence was smile. She said she kind of felt like an idiot, smiling and smiling and smiling at him, but I can totally understand it!

He radiated his aura all around him, and she was touched and enveloped by it.

I am smiling right now, thinking about this, and how it must have felt to her (she is quite a joyous young person herself, and I always felt good and happy in her presence. I suspect that some of the people who are threatened by the idea of longevity are not that happy to be here in the first place. They donít find much joy in life, or much meaning, I feel. Or they have no purpose, or are not able to figure out what their purpose IS. I know people like this.

Of course, probably some of them are well-known people with careers, who are "successful", but that doesnít necessarily mean they feel joy. People can be very successful to all appearances, and yet lead private lives of "quiet desperation" ...

Years ago, when I was in counseling, my counselor once asked me: "But what about JOY? Where is joy in your life?" And I did not KNOW what he was talking about. I truly had NO clue. Over time I did come to realize and believe it was possible for me to feel joy to be alive - and that was a wonderful new facet, another dimension to my life, and it gave me a shiny fresh new way of looking at people and things. And some people never know that at all. Or possibly, they donít recognize it when it comes to them, and so dismiss it for a fluke? It canít possibly last ... and so, of course, it doesnít.

A self-fulfilling prophecy: I sabotaged myself this way dozens - maybe hundreds - of times when I was younger. It was a joyless existence. Yes, many people do get to appreciate life more as they grow older, though, from my experience, sometimes it takes a lot of work! But thatís okay.

One just has to be willing.

I see joy as a wonderful strengthener for the immune system. And what about cancers? Heart problems? This is all connected, youíve really hit upon it.

be drunk with love

By Ivy

Baudelaire says, "Be always drunk: with love, with wine, with poetry, with virtue." And Chopra says, basically, "Be always in love."

To be in love is to be totally released from negativity.

There are stories of people with incurable diseases who managed to fall in love - sometimes with a person, sometimes with art (told that they had only a year to live, they finally gave themselves the permission to do what theyíd always dreamed of doing), and the all-out, last-chance ecstasy of falling in love brought either a cure or a long-term remission.

Here too we can suggest physiological explanation. For instance, we know that dopamine, our natural "upper" and reward chemical, has a powerful anti-cancer action. But we also know that we canít make ourselves fall in love, even if our life depends on it. Love happens or it doesnít happen. There will always be some mystery left. As Heraclitus wrote some 2500 years ago, "However far you go, you will never find the boundaries of the soul."

mind/body health: the effects of attitudes, emotions + relationships

by Benjamin Cummings

Detailing the latest scientific findings regarding the relationship between the mind and body, this text discusses how attitudes and emotions directly affect physical health and well-being. Written by an interdisciplinary team of authors, including two professional health educators who have been deeply involved in Mind / Body research and an MD / Internist who specializes in Mind / Body practices, this text details current global findings on the relationship between the mind and body.

The authors show that negative emotions such as anger, depression, and anxiety can adversely affect physical health while positive emotions such as humor and optimism can serve to improve health and increase longevity. Relationships between physical health and spirituality, attitude, medicine, and various social factors are explored. The authors stress the importance of health choices and lifestyle factors on overall health and well-being, while laying groundwork for continued research in Mind / Body medicine in the 21st century.

Features cutting-edge research demonstrating the link between the mind and body. Illustrates the relationship between a positive attitude and the healing and prevention of health problems. Demonstrates how the body responds to our attitude and self-esteem and explains the scientifically-proven changes in heart rate, hormones, and body chemistry that accompany various attitudes and emotions.

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simple abundance

Today I want you to become aware that you already possess all the inner wisdom, strength, and creativity needed to make your dreams come true. This is hard for most of us to realize because the source of this unlimited personal power is buried so deeply beneath the bills, the car pool, the deadlines, the business trip, and the dirty laundry that we have difficulty accessing it in our daily lives. When we can't access our inner resources, we come to the flawed conclusion that happiness and fulfillment come only from external events. We can learn to be the catalysts for our own change.

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... and remember ...

The pessimist, focusing on his adversity and failures, soon loses hope and retires to the shore. He curses his bad luck, packs up his tackle box, and returns home empty-handed But the optimistic angler, believing in the inevitability of his success, keeps casting.

Eventually the tides turn, and the fish begin to bite. In fishing, as in life, the size of the catch depends upon the size of one's hopes. On ponds, streams, rivers, lakes and oceans, the self-fulfilling prophesy is alive and well. And so are the fish.

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