Study: Seriously Ill 'Happier' When They Give Up Hope

Sometimes, when living with a serious illness, the best hope for happiness may be simply to give up hope.

That's according to a group of researchers who discovered a "dark side of hope" studying a group of adults who had new colostomies: their colons were removed and they had to have bowel movements in a pouch that lies outside their body. Sometimes the procedure can be reversed after the bowel has healed. But depending on the reason for bowel surgery, the procedure may be permanent.

In the current study, 41 people were told that their colostomy was reversible and that they could undergo a second operation to reconnect their bowels after several months and get rid of the pouch. The remaining 30 individuals were told that the colostomy was permanent and that they would never have normal bowel function again.

According to a report in the latest issue of Health Psychology, the second group - the one without hope - reported being happier over the next six months than those with reversible colostomies.

"We think they were happier because they got on with their lives. They realized the cards they were dealt, and recognized that they had no choice but to play with those cards," Dr. Peter A. Ubel, director of the University of Michigan Health Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine, and one of the authors of the study, said in a university-issued statement.

"We're not saying hope is a bad thing. What we're pointing out is that there can be a dark side of hope," Ubel added in a telephone interview with Reuters Health.

"It can cause people to put their lives on hold. Instead of moving on and trying to make the best of circumstances, you can think, 'my circumstances are going to change eventually - no point in dealing with these circumstances'," Ubel said.

The researchers also note in their report that doctors often don't want to tell patients that hope is futile. Not only is it hard to do, but according to Ubel, hope plays a role in happiness and "happy people live longer and healthier than unhappy people."

But while hopeful news may be easiest to deliver, "it may not be in the best interest of the recipients because it may interfere with emotional adaptation," the study team concluded.

Ubel said he's seen the same behavior among people living with pain. They put their lives on hold waiting for the pain to go away, which may never happen.

The bottom line, Ubel said, is "most people would do better to make the best of their circumstances; the 'wait for something better' strategy can backfire."

SOURCE: Health Psychology, November 2009.