The Importance of Both Optimism and Skepticism

Today I want to talk about a topic that I feel many individuals either don’t understand or fail to address- the importance of being both and optimist and skeptic when it comes to the modern health, nutrition and medical environments. Now, I realize that these two traits (optimism and skepticism) fall on opposite sides of the spectrum, yet when it comes to your health, I believe both are important traits to have in certain situations. Optimism, by definition, is roughly defined as being open about what the future holds for a certain event. For example, if I were to tell you that reducing your dietary carbohydrate intake will prove beneficial in lowering your blood sugar, an optimist would take that advice, believe it to be true and work to reduce their intake. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have skeptic’s, who tend to doubt the efficacy of a desired outcome. In the same situation described above (reducing dietary carbohydrate), a skeptic would be more likely to either: 1) Ignore the advice completely or 2) Approach said intervention with little belief that it will be effective at achieving the desired outcome (reduced blood sugar). In the sections below, I am going to outline why, in certain situations, I believe using both of these approaches can help you make the best decisions for your health and the health of your families.

The Necessity of Optimism- If you don’t believe in it, it won’t happen.

Let’s address the importance of being optimistic first. In medicine, it is a well-known idea that if you begin a treatment protocol with the belief that it’s not going to be effective (skepticism), there’s a greater chance that you won’t get better. I am not going to claim to understand the mechanism by which this occurs via the brain-body connection, but this idea should make sense when we take a step back and look at the broader picture. In all of our lives, we tend to be more successful in areas that we hold the most confidence. It’s very easy to be optimistic about things we are comfortable with. Now, where I believe optimism becomes most important is when we are presented with an alternative or uncomfortable approach to a problem in our lives. For example, say you’ve been following the same diet for most of your adult life and have maintained roughly the same body weight, despite not exercising or eating all that well. Now, all of a sudden, in your mid-to-late thirties, you begin to gain weight. As a result, you see a well-respected nutritionist and explain to them that you’ve “always eaten the same way and don’t understand why you’re gaining weight.” They run some tests and determine that your deficient in some nutrients, have poor blood sugar control, and are predisposed for cardiovascular disease. For good reason, this news shocks you because you haven’t changed anything! The nutritionist recommends you begin exercising, eat more leafy greens, and take a vitamin D supplement. However, you dislike veggies, haven’t exercised in years, and don’t like the idea of supplementation. This is where optimism comes in. Assuming this is the first time you’re receiving this advice, your nutritionist is knowledgeable and your best health interests are being taken into consideration, following the above advice and approaching the situation with optimism could drastically improve your health. Now, what if the advice doesn’t prove effective? What if after months of believing, trying, and struggling, you’ve seen no results? What if you’re being provided with information or advice that hasn’t proven effective for you in the past?

The Unavoidable Place for Skepticism- Don’t believe everything you hear.

I want to start by saying that approaching everything in life with skepticism is not appropriate and will probably leave you very unhappy and bored. However, in certain health-related situations, I believe we all need to harness our inner-skeptic. We have all heard of the “magical diet that leads to weight loss” or the “medication that solved it all”. It seems like everyday we are given advice that contradicts something we previously perceived as beneficial. Now, sometimes this works wonders for individual’s health and well-being (probably those who are most optimistic about said intervention). For example, if someone is having terrible digestive issues, has poor complexion, and has low energy levels, chances are they are going to feel some degree better from improving their diet and exercise habits. However, what if they already eat a diet rich in vegetables, exercise for 30-60 mins each day yet have the same symptoms? Someone in the ladder situation should be skeptical about the advice to simply “clean up their diet and exercise more” and question their provider. Yes, some of this falls into the hands of the provider who should know the health history of the patient/client, but if you are skeptical of the information you receive, you can avoid the viscous cycle of poor health advice.

The Big Takeaway

When it comes to your health and well being, do your research. If you’re suffering from ill-health, you should by all means be optimistic about the information you receive from trusted health professionals and work your hardest to adhere to interventions. However, if time goes by and your health fails to improve, your inner-skeptic should begin to shine through and question the advice you have been given. I have seen too many friends, family members, and loved ones go too long in suffering when perhaps an alternative approach could have done wonders.