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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Dr. Pegs Prescription

A positive attitude is important for remaining healthy and happy

A few weeks ago I had the great good fortune to go backpacking in the Grand Canyon. Ten of us did 35 miles and 10,000 vertical feet down and up in 4 days with 40 pound packs. Not bad for a bunch of mostly middle aged people! The Canyon –those who have hiked it realize there is really only one canyon in this country that deserves a capital C— is starkly beautiful and infinitely intimidating. If you have never been there, I strongly recommend it. There is nothing like walking on 70 million year old rocks to give you perspective.

Some of our group came all the way from Canada by plane. One of them — I’ll call him Steven — arrived in Phoenix with the rest of the group, but his luggage didn’t get off the plane with him. The plane took off again for its next destination, taking his backpack with it. He had done weeks of careful planning, choosing the appropriate light-weight gear, packing his backpack and hiking with it on his back up and down hills to get in shape for the adventure. Now here he was without his things with a three hour drive to Flagstaff ahead, from where we would be leaving early the next morning.

What would you do?

Steven made a choice — that is the point of this article. When he talked to the airline, he could have demanded that the airline reimburse him, threatened a lawsuit, ranted and raved at the hapless employee behind the desk. Many people would have done this. After all, the airline did screw up, and it could cost Steven a trip down the Grand Canyon or a lot of fast money and hassle trying to replace everything in a short time. Anger and frustration is natural in such a situation.

Steven felt frustrated indeed, he told me later. But he made a conscious choice not to express anger toward the airline employees. He explained his predicament, was patient and kind, never lost his cool and used the old standbys “please” and “thank you.” He left the airport with the rest of the Canadian party and drove to Flagstaff, hoping for a miracle. Meanwhile, being a practical person, he appealed to a friend of a friend in Flagstaff who started digging through his closets and garage in search of replacement gear.

That evening he spoke on the phone with the airline people several times. They finally let him know that they found his backpack in Calgary. He thanked them. They apologized that they couldn’t guarantee when it would make it back to Phoenix. He understood. They informed him when it was on another plane bound for Phoenix, and when it arrived in the middle of the night he did not complain about being wakened with the news. Finally, an hour before departure time, an airline van pulled up to our hotel in Flagstaff with Steven’s luggage. He was able to make the hike with his own pack and gear as planned.

Somewhere on the Tonto plateau, the only part of our route flat enough for conversation, Steven talked about the whole thing. He was genuinely appreciative of the people that had lost and found his luggage. “I’m going to write a thank-you letter to the airlines,” he said. Talk about a “glass half full” attitude!

You catch more flies with honey. Sure, it’s possible that the airline would have found and returned Steven’s bag in time if he had ranted and raved. Sometimes aggression gets results. But imagine if you were the airline employee in this situation. Would you be more inclined to help a serene, respectful person, or a vitriolic in-your-face screamer? And imagine if you were Steven: would you be happier being all worked up? Or would you feel better inside if you remained calm? Steven got a good night’s sleep, briefly interrupted by good news.

Winston Churchill said, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” The only person in control of your mind is you, and if you can cultivate a positive attitude, it will do more than gain you brownie points with airline employees. Numerous studies have linked positive attitude with beneficial health outcomes including fewer common colds, less stress and depression, lower incidence of heart disease and greater longevity. That’s right — people who look on the bright side live longer. More importantly, people who look on the bright side live happier.

The more you use a pathway in your brain, the easier it becomes to use. Just like training your body to accomplish a physical feat such as hiking the Grand Canyon, you can train your brain to accomplish a mental attitude. And guess what, everybody benefits! Thanks to Steven for providing a living example.

Dr. Peggy Spencer is a physician at Student Health and Counseling. She is also co-author of the book “50 Ways to Leave Your 40s.” Email your questions directly to her at pspencer@unm.edu. All questions will be considered, and all questioners will remain anonymous.