It seems likely that a positive attitude can speed up the healing process. but I can't decide by what mechanism it would operate by.


  • Does having a positive attitude improve immune system functioning?
  • If so, what is the mechanism by which this occurs?

Initial thoughts: Is it the inhibition of some sort of stress cortisol? The answer seems like it would have to do with how the placebo effect or hypnosis suggestion functions.

  • $\begingroup$ when looking for possible connections, it is best not to make implicit assumptions. This question will be greatly improved if you do the initial research and include an example reference (like this but one you have taken time to look over) to frame your question. Also, as written it is not clear if you are asking for the specific mechanism (and at what level of description) or if you are just looking for general data on relationship between place-effect and recovery time. $\endgroup$ Aug 13, 2012 at 3:23
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, the question looks greatly improved! As you predicted, I'm looking for the mechanism if there is one. $\endgroup$ Aug 13, 2012 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ I saw something today about this in an interview with Gabor Mate (near the end, ~40 minutes, but I suggest watching the whole interview, good stuff). Dr. Mate brings up several studies. He called the discipline Psychoneuroimmunology $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2012 at 22:36

1 Answer 1


As far as I know, it has not been shown that a positive attitude has any effect on the immune system (ignoring the less significant placebo effect). What has been shown is that long-term stress has a negative effect on the immune system. Short-term stress actually has a positive effect on the immune system, but long-term stress has been correlated with several affecting mechanisms: lower white blood cell count, too much cytokine production.

The following study found lots of mixed results. A typical sign that there's really no clear answer to the question. When there are so many confounding results, it's easy for people to only take the half they agree with, so we should be wary of our propensity to do so when we want to hear a particular answer.

The failure of optimism to consistently predict better physical health indicators and outcomes is consistent with this pessimistic view of optimism: “The best doesn't always occur. When things go wrong in a big way, the optimist may be particularly vulnerable.”


I have suggested an alternative hypothesis to explain negative effects of optimism on the immune system (see Fig. 1; Segerstrom, 2001; Segerstrom et al., 2003; Solberg Nes et al., in press). This hypothesis specifies that under difficult circumstances, more optimistic people remain engaged with those circumstances whereas more pessimistic people disengage, avoid, or give up. Giving up can be a physiologically protective response because stressor exposure is minimized in the short term by giving up rather than remaining engaged...


  • $\begingroup$ Well the mechanism could be social - positive emotions could elicit and strengthen social bonds which could affect some socially mediated source like hormones--> NTs. Thus, higher cortical processes can affect immune system functioning indirectly through social information. $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2012 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking there must be studies done to test the effect of positive attitude on cancer recovery, which I thought was something doctors recommend, but I see now there are is no such evidence. $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2012 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ Aren't there sometimes significant results from placebo effect? Even if they are minimal, is it just through unconscious changes in behavior that better the recovery process? Even that is an answer, if there have been studies. $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2012 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ I am a little bit skeptical of this answer. Writing off the placebo effect as something insignificant is not appropriate in all cases, I would appreciate it if you expanded on your reasoning behind this and/or provided some references. I understand it is really hard to find references for negative claims, but somehow this seems to be too simple of an explanation to be true. $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2012 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ I'm with @ArtemKaznatcheev, and I think this could potentially be an important question to have answered on the site, so having some reflection of the existing research would make it all the more valuable. $\endgroup$ Aug 14, 2012 at 17:04

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