One of the earliest books (In Western culture) written about the power of the human mind to alter what happens in the body is “The Power of Positive Thinking” (1952). Since it was written by a Methodist minister, Norman Vincent Peale, many people assumed that the focus would be Spirituality. Turns out, his book had much more to do with Peale’s un-scientific and non-religious experiment with his own cancer treatment, and his resulting belief that mental positivity can heal.
The story is that Peale, in his early 50’s, was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer. According to his doctors, his prognosis was grim. They suggested admitting him into hospital, but he refused. Instead, Peale did something that his medical team thought was totally crazy: for 6 to 7 hours each day, in between dozing and eating light meals, Peale watched old black and white films (reel to reel copies he’d borrowed from a Hollywood friend) of Laurel and Hardy comedy sketches. Long story short, around 7 months later, Peale claimed that he had literally laughed his cancer into remission. His doctors agreed: he was cancer-free. Peale lived another 43 years, passing away at the age of 95, from natural causes.
I have a good friend that I’ve kind of lost touch with. I went fast-forward into a demanding career phase, while Janelle left the work scene to care for her gravely-ill baby daughter. While the baby went to a renowned children’s hospital and lived by machines breathing for her, Janelle stayed in a dorm on the hospital’s campus. Janelle later told me that, for the 3 months her child struggled to survive, she got “hooked” on two television channels that were non-stop Love and Happiness. She craved the diversion, and her heart desperately needed a continuous loop of happy-endings.
What seemed like a year later, my friend phoned to let me know that the baby was out of the hospital and at home, though still under doctor’s care. She segued into talking about her tv “shows” and how they’d remained an ongoing part of her life. “They’re all I watch, anymore”, she said. I did a silent eye-roll, then caught myself going a little judge-y: Whatever works; who am I to criticize icky-sweet dramas that end, predictably, with happy outcomes for all?
What was most surprising was the fact that, previously, Janelle was what I’d call ‘tough’. She’d worked with hardened juvenile offenders and gangsters, and had herself grown up in a rough household of drugs and poverty. She was savvy, streetwise, and a bit cynical. How could she have ‘gone over the rainbow’ so completely? Simple answer: her baby’s life was threatened, and Janelle needed the magic of Everything Will Always Be Ok. She’d dosed herself, the way Peale did, with the sights and sounds of joy and hope. For months. And it worked for her.
Mindless chores like dusting and folding laundry always involve Dance music and lots of it. On a particular day in early November, I decided instead to turn on the television. I didn’t check the channel, it didn’t matter; but before I knew it I’d gotten roped into a charming (and high-grossing, at the time) Rom-Com film I hadn’t seen in years. It had just started, but I had too much work to do so I recorded it to watch later that night. Which I did, until around midnight. Happy ending: check. Plenty of tears and smiles woven-together: check. Silly, simple and absurd at times: check. Everything that I – apparently—had wanted and needed, because I nodded off in a kind of goofy stupor, sleeping better than I have in a long, long time. The next night, I found another film of the same genre and, I have to say, gave myself over to it in the same mindless way. At the end of multiple films over a number of days, I felt ridiculous — but strangely better.
Rom-Coms and funny skits don’t make The World go away, but there’s definitely something to be said for allowing our minds to take a break from so much worry, fear, angst and stress of daily living. There’s no danger of my falling into a place where I never again watch my news feed, or my favorites, Noir films; but I’ve re-discovered the amazing link between happiness-dosing and a peaceful mental state. So what if some of what we consume is cheesy (literally and figuratively)? There just might be a longer, happier life hidden in that mix. Peale called it “The Happiness Habit” and suggested that we should “cultivate it every day”. How we choose to do that might seem silly to others, but hey – if it works…?