NOTE:  This blog post was taken from Need to Know: How to Arm Yourself and Survive on the Healthcare Battlefield (2018) by Darwin Hale, COL (RET), USAR, the Founder & CEO of Advocate Health Advisors. Darwin is a respected entrepreneur, author and decorated military officer with more than 30 years’ experience in the corporate world to include serving in the United States Army and Army Reserve (USAR).

Most people know that proper nutrition and regular exercise are foundation elements for healthy living. You have heard this theme from doctors, in school classes, from advertisers, on the internet and from a huge “good health” industry. Go to Amazon and enter the search term “healthy living”. A click or two away you will find hundreds of videos and books on topics like “Healthy Eating for Life” or “Walking Workouts.” You are certainly wise to pay close attention to nutrition and exercise, but there is a third pillar of healthy living that is often ignored.

That pillar is called “mindset.”  A healthy mindset is an essential element of overall good health. Mindset is the foundation of success in any of life’s endeavors. Your family and personal relationships, your economic success, your level of “happiness” and your physical health are all heavily dependent on this thing called “mindset.”

Considering how important mindset is to so much of life, it is not a widely discussed or understood subject. Do you know what mindset is, or more importantly, what your own mindset is?

What is mindset?

Mindset is comparable to a mental “operating system.”  It is a set of rules or attitudes that govern how a person reacts to their environment. Think of the frequently used example of a glass that is half filled. Some people see this as an opportunity for growth, they envision ways to fill the vessel, to make the “cup runneth over.” Others take a less optimistic view.

A healthy mindset involves clarity of vision, thought and action. It accepts and adapts to change and promotes desirable growth. As human beings, we’re empowered by our intelligence to make certain choices that are denied to other creatures. When the sun shines, the flower opens. When a snake is disturbed, it bites. Not much thought goes into those actions, but human mindset gives us the ability to choose and the power to make those choices a reality.

For us humans, between stimulus and response, there is often the possibility of choice. We all have a choice to maintain a positive or negative mindset, however difficult that may be.  Our emotional wellbeing or lack of wellbeing has huge implications for our health. You may have heard that someone “worried themselves sick” or that a person “died of a broken heart.” These are not just idioms, they are real medical conditions. Emotional stress affects the body just as physical stress does.

The strong link between “positivity” and health

A negative mindset not only causes emotional stress, it also contributes to unhealthy habits like smoking, overuse of alcohol and poor nutrition. You have probably heard someone say, “I’m going to die anyway, so why quit smoking.” Their negative mindset prevents them from seeking help with this addiction.

Alternatively, positive emotions have been linked to a lower risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other leading causes of death. This finding has been noted many times in the scientific world. Several years ago, the American Journal of Cardiology published a study titled “The Effect of Positive Well-Being on Incidence of Symptomatic Coronary Artery Disease.” That title is a mouthful, but the conclusion is simple: happy people are healthier. This study found that over a 25-year period, people with a family history of heart disease who also had a positive mindset were one-third less likely to have a heart attack than those with a more negative outlook.

The mechanism of this improvement is not clear, however, there is definitely a strong link between “positivity” and health. Other studies have established that positive attitudes and mindsets improve outcomes across a range of medical conditions—including traumatic brain injury, stroke and brain tumors. People who are happier are usually more flexible and resilient. They cope better with change and disappointment, making them better able to take care of themselves and they suffer fewer of the effects of chronic stress.

Feeling connected supports positive mindset

Just as with blood pressure, cholesterol or body mass index, there is a metric for measuring mindset. It is your level of “happiness.” In 2012, the United Nations issued the first World Happiness Report, a global survey of well-being and happiness that ranks countries from the happiest to the most unhappy.

Among the findings was the observation that individual happiness is largely tied to the number of close relationships a person has, and how integrated they are with their society. Simply put, human beings need to feel connected to be happy. Didn’t we all know this?

Social isolation and loneliness are associated with increased mortality, sickness, and disability, especially in older adults. Loneliness and isolation harms their mindset, exacting a physical toll. A former Surgeon General of the United States commented that “loneliness has been found to be associated with a reduction of life span. The reduction in life span [for loneliness] is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and greater than the impact on life span of obesity.”

Our mindset can influence our health, and we do have some choice in the matter. How our mindset forms is a mix of genetics, choices, and circumstances. In her book The How of Happiness, positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues estimated that happiness is 50 percent inherited, 40 percent within our ability to control, and 10 percent dependent upon our circumstances.

Owning our own mindset

How much of mindset is due to genetic factors beyond our control is debatable. Still, there is no doubt that we do have control over a great deal of the quality we call mindset. How can we take ownership of those factors and strengthen the habits that lead to positive mindset and greater happiness? A recent edition of Psychology Today Magazine highlighted evidence for the existence and power of just such mindset practices.

Recent scholarship documenting the unique habits of those who are happiest in life revealed that activities that lead them to feel uncertainty, discomfort, and even guilt are often the most memorable and enjoyable experiences of their lives. Happy people, it seems, engage in habits that seem downright unhappy!

While it seems counterintuitive, when you think about these findings on a deeper level, they begin to make more sense. Truly happy people seem to have an intuitive grasp of the fact that sustained happiness is not just about doing things that you like. It also requires growth and adventuring beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone. Happy people tend to be curious people, and research has shown that curiosity leads to activities that evoke happiness, such as volunteering to help others.

These are some aspects of a “happiness hack” that I like to share:

  • Serve the greater good!
  • Be true to your passions!
  • Find what you’re best at, spend a lot of time doing it, and help others to do so as well.

Combating isolation and loneliness in seniors

It’s not complicated, but happiness and a positive mindset do require effort. However, a healthy mindset and happiness aren’t just for your own benefit. These qualities benefit all of the people around you. Remember the importance of human connections and the role that they play in maintaining a positive mindset. It might be an important weapon in helping them win the health care fight.

We mentioned the problem of social isolation and loneliness in older adults. Seniors are more likely to suffer from loneliness, isolation and their resulting mental health issues. Physicians who treat older patients have come to recognize this and, many geriatric practices have included mental health services and professionals. Medicare and the private insurance industry have also been innovating to provide holistic care for seniors, including paying attention to seniors’ mindsets.

The growth of Medicare Advantage Plans (or Medicare Part C) reflects this trend. Advantage Plans provide comprehensive Part A and Part B coverage for hospital and outpatient services, just as traditional Medicare does. Most Advantage plans include Part D, prescription drug coverage, and they often include benefits that have special relevance to promoting a healthy mindset. Benefits like free yoga lessons, gym memberships, health management programs, wellness programs that include nutrition counseling, or free membership in the SilverSneakers® organization all point the way toward the inclusive care seniors need. Medical care, exercise programs, nutrition and wellness counseling and opportunities for socialization may all contribute to a healthy mindset. Advantage Plans enable all of these elements to be included in a single package.