Chronically ill may be happier if they give up hope

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People who suffer with a chronic disability or illness may be happier if they give up hope that things will ever improve, suggests a small but intriguing study published in this month’s issue of Health Psychology, the journal of the American Psychological Association.

Why? Because people don’t adapt well to situations they think are short lived, they hold out for something better, which can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction. “Hope has a dark side,” says Peter Ubel, MD, one of the study’s authors. “It can make people put off getting on with their lives; in essence, it can get in the way of happiness.”

For the study, researchers from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Carnegie Mellon University, followed 45 patients with new colostomies, meaning each patient had his/her colon removed and had to use an external pouch to contain bowel contents. At the time of the procedure, some were told their colostomy was reversible—that they would undergo a second surgery to reconnect their bowels in several months. Other patients were told their colostomy was permanent and that they would never regain normal bowel function.

(The authors are quick to point out that the study was not randomized and that the medical decision between who gets a reversible vs. non-reversible colostomy often comes down to a patient’s anatomy.)

Over the next 6 months, the participants filled out a series of surveys designed to measure their psychological well-being. In the end, those who didn’t hold out any hope for getting their colostomies reversed were happier than those who clung to the hope that they would some day be back to “normal.”

About the upbeat group, Ubel says, “We think they were happier because they got on with their lives. They realized the cards they were dealt, and recognized that they had no other choice but to play those cards.”

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