Is it friendly out there?

The most important decision we can make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.

Albert Einstein

Sounds sensible, doesn’t it? For me, it hearkens back to when my parents used to lecture me about my attitude.

The amazing thing about Einstein quotes is that you can peel back layer upon layer as you gain experience and learn something new about the world. And it seems to me that as modern scientists make new discoveries, Einstein’s words seem to reflect them, as if he got there well before us. It’s as though you’re on a long and adventurous journey and when you get to the viewpoint that you think no one has seen before, there’s Albert Einstein, relaxing on a bench and giving you a cheeky wink.

The above quote is an example of that. I’ve heard it before, and it resonated, but since I’ve done the research for my TEDx talk, the resonance has swelled into a veritable orchestra.

It all started with my own observations of my patients in clinic – the first lone cello note.

Over the years I’ve found that I can often predict if a patient will respond to medical treatment or not. There is something about the way they interact in the world that defines them as destined for recovery or doomed to decline. Here are a few of my observations about the two groups of people:

People most likely to recover health tend to:

  • focus on the positive
  • be hopeful about the treatment
  • look past the risk of side effects
  • be grateful for the good things (and no matter how bad it gets, there are always good things)
  • look forward to getting better
  • be confident that they will improve
  • feel a sense of control over their fate

People most likely to decline in health tend to:

  • focus on the negative (easy to do when you’re ill!)
  • be doubtful of the treatment
  • worry a lot about the side effects of treatment
  • blame external circumstances for their situation
  • worry about getting worse
  • be doubtful that they can improve
  • lack a sense of control over their fate, feel victimised

Notice the word themes in each group? The first group: positive, hopeful, grateful, confident, in control. The second group: negative, doubtful, worry, blame, out of control. In which of Einstein’s universes (friendly or hostile) do you think each group of patients resides?

I had thought this was merely a collection of my own anecdotes. Interesting, but nothing more. But then I found the science that supported these observations. Now, with this research, the brass and woodwinds can be added to the cello. Consider these scientific facts:

  • stress means our fight-or-flight response is engaged
  • stress means we are responding to something we are afraid of
  • chronic stress = chronic fear or threat
  • chronic stress is a causal factor for illness
  • an optimistic outlook is linked to better health and a longer life

Add all this together and the refrain is: fear/pessimism is linked to illness, and hope/optimism is linked to health. Or, in reference to Einstein’s wisdom: Belief in a hostile universe is linked to illness, and belief in a friendly universe is linked to health.

It all adds up to a tidy little circle of truth, all ultimately pointing in the same direction.

So. Is it a friendly world out there? Or is it threatening? It’s an important question to ask yourself now and then. The answer will have an impact on your health, and I believe, an overall impact on the life you are building for yourself.

The best part of all this is that the ultimate control lies within us. How we see the world, and interact within it, is entirely up to us. We can choose to feel threatened or we can choose to feel nurtured. We can choose to believe people are inherently good, or we can choose to believe the opposite. We can choose to be grateful, or we can choose to complain. If you think about it, there is always plenty to be grateful for, and also plenty to complain about. What choice are you making these days?

Phew. So, what took me a page and a half to merely scratch the surface, Einstein accomplished in a sentence. I’m going to wrap up with that quote again, food for thought on this fine day:

The most important decision we can make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.

Albert Einstein

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