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Thinking of babies in hats (and other feelgood thoughts) makes you healthier, say scientists

Taking brief moments to savour life helps patients make better decisions about their health, according to a new report.

Researchers said consciously thinking of happy thoughts as soon as you wake up has a therapeutic effect. They even offer examples including babies in hats and beautiful sunrises.

The approach was shown to be successful for patients with a variety of illnesses including coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and asthma – helping the patients to make better decisions about their treatment.

Feeling healthier already A Weill Cornell Medical College study found that patients who though positive thoughts - including picturing babies in hats - made better health decisions

Feeling healthier already A Weill Cornell Medical College study found that patients who though positive thoughts – including picturing babies in hats – made better health decisions

The findings are detailed in three studies of 756 patients published online in the January 23 edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

They are the first large, randomised controlled trials to show that people can use positive thoughts and self-affirmation to help them make and sustain behaviour change.

The research was funded by a $9.5 million contract from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health and led by Dr Mary Charlson, from Weill Cornell Medical College.

The same process was used in all three studies. Patients were encouraged to think of small things in their lives that make them feel good (such as seeing a beautiful sunset) when they get up in the morning and throughout their day.

Patients were also asked to use self-affirmation to help them overcome obstacles to getting better by recalling moments in their lives they were proud of, such as a graduation.

'This simple approach gives patients the tools that help them fulfill their promise to themselves that they will do what’s needed for their health,' said Dr Charlson.

'For example, if it’s raining and they don’t feel like exercising, these strategies can help them get past this mental block and into their sneakers.'

A script given to those taking part in the study reads 'First, when you get up in the morning, think about the small things that you said make you feel good'.

Happy thoughts: Thinking of a sunrise like this one of Whitley Bay, is also suggested as a way to make patients feel better about taking medication or exercising

Happy thoughts: Thinking of a sunrise like this one of Whitley Bay in Tyne and Wear, is also suggested as a way to make patients feel better about taking medication

It then lets the participant choose
their own happy thought, or gives some unusually specific examples
including 'babies in hats' or 'the sunrise'.

The
script continues: 'Then as you go through your day, notice those and
other small things that make you feel good and take a moment to enjoy
them.

'Second, when
you encounter some difficulties or are in a situation that makes it hard
for you (e.g. taking your blood pressure medications or exercising),
think about things you enjoy or proud moments in your life.'

Here the script suggests remembering your graduation, or thinking about the success of a child.

Dr Charlson said: 'Positive affect made a real difference – patients are better able to follow through on behaviors to improve their health.'

Patients in the study were randomly assigned either to the experimental 'positive affect' group or to a control group.

Celebration: Thinking of something that makes you proud - like a graduation ceremony - can also help improve your health

Celebration: Thinking of something that makes you proud – like a graduation ceremony – can also help people stick to a medication plan

Both groups made personal contracts to adhere to their behaviour plans, were given an educational guide on the importance of their intervention, and received phone calls every two months to check in on their progress.

Along with daily use of positive thinking, patients in the experimental group received surprise gifts like tote bags prior to the phone sessions.

The monetary value of the gifts was unimportant, Dr Charlson explained; rather, they were symbolic and served to reinforce the intervention.

Results were measured at the end of the year-long studies.

For coronary artery disease, 55 per cent of patients in the positive thinking and self-affirmation category increased their physical activity compared with 37 percent in the control group.

The positive affect group walked an average of 3.4 miles a week more than the control group.

For high blood pressure (the study focused on African-Americans with the disease), 42 per cent of the positive thinking group adhered to their medication plan compared with 36 per cent in the control group.

And for those who would like to see more babies in hats to help them stay positive…

Baby in turquoise hat

Baby in bobble hat

Baby steps: Thinking of lovely images such as babies in hats encouraged test subjects to walk further and look after their health