Pilots show optimism key to life

What’s a good prescription this holiday season for a long and happy life? Year after year, my mother used to say on Christmas morning, “I wonder if we’ll all be here next year.” If you say this often enough, the answer eventually is no. But studies show that it’s healthier to be more optimistic – like fighter pilots.

Several years ago, I interviewed Thomas P. Hackett, professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, who had a fascinating hobby. He spent his vacations travelling thousands of miles tracking down 40 First World War fighter pilots. He wanted to ascertain whether surviving fighter pilots possessed a certain quality that not only helped them make it through the war but also supported them later on in life.

Fighter pilots in the First World War faced terrible odds. One in four was killed in training when unreliable planes crashed during takeoff. Once in combat, their life span was three to six weeks. Only one in 20 survived the war.

Hackett told me the quality they possessed was a “wealth of optimism and a want of fear.” The pilots saw themselves as indestructible, and this attitude of being invulnerable continuelong after they left the air force.

Hackett found other traits. They were all obsessed with fitness and had been athletic, staying in good physical shape throughout their lives. Infirmity usually resulted from accidents such as falling off a horse. The majority of them emulated their fathers, and amazingly none of the 40 pilots interviewed had parents who had divorced.

They had all married – one at 76 – and 75 per cent had remarried after the death of a spouse. All took regular vacations, often to unusual and adventuresome places. Only three had had an alcohol problem, but each of them had stopped drinking. One would have thought that the one-in-20 odds of being killed in aerial combat would have made them religious. But only six of the 40 went to church.

Having survived the war, they all refused to take foolish risks. They had developed this characteristic during the war. They knew that a jammed gun meant death so they spent hours polishing each machine gun bullet and oiling their guns. They were cautious in postwar business ventures, investing only where risk was minimal.

Attitude impacts on well-being
Later, when faced with problems, they displayed a calm fatalism. This upbeat approach helped them eventually triumph over financial troubles, cancer and the death of loved ones. None encountered severe psychiatric illness. Four admitted depression at the death of a spouse, but they all refused to seek help and recovered in time.

Dr. Hackett observed over and over that each of the pilots had a sense of humour and an ability to relax and play it cool even in times of great stress.

Studies show this helps to prevent illness.

The Mayo Clinic gave psychological tests to 839 elderly patients. They discovered those who had the highest levels of pessimism were 20 per cent more likely to die prematurely than the optimists. Another study of elderly people showed that those with feelings of hopelessness were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who possessed a high “joy factor.”

Negative emotions increase the risk of coronary attack. Moreover, emotional duress often results in unhealthy lifestyle practices such as excessive drinking, smoking and overeating.

So can you cultivate happiness? Like everything else you have to work at it. Just as you can interrupt an overly talkative friend, you must learn to interrupt your own negative thoughts and count your blessings every day.

I doubt if there’s ever been a better time to learn a lesson from the lives of these fighter pilots and for everyone to write themselves a prescription for a “wealth of optimism and a want of fear”. My best wishes for a healthy and a happily optimistic holiday.