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Sometimes patients shouldn't hold on to hope

November 4, 2009 |  6:00 am

Hope Common wisdom tells us that it's good to nurture hope that things will get better. But a new study suggests that acceptance of an adverse situation, such as a serious health condition, is sometimes better for one's mental outlook than being hopeful the situation will change.

Experiencing something bad naturally causes a decline in happiness. The longer the adversity lasts, the worse one's sense of well being. But researchers at the University of Michigan decided to study a more complex question: Which is better, accepting the permanency of a bad situation or expecting that it is temporary and will change? 

The researchers followed 74 patients who had just received either a permanent or temporary colostomy or ileostomy, a surgery that affects normal bowel function. The participants completed surveys about their life satisfaction. Initially, patients with the reversible condition reported higher life satisfaction than those with a permanent colostomy. However, after the first week, the permanent colostomy patients reported increasing life satisfaction, and those with a reversible condition reported declining life satisfaction. The trend held up over the six-month study period.

Hope can interfere with a person's ability to adapt to their current situation, said the authors of the study, published in the November issue of Health Psychology.

"Hope is an important part of happiness. But there's a dark side to hope," a co-author of the study, Dr. Peter A. Ubel, said in a news release. "We think [the permanent colostomy patients] 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. The other group was waiting for their colostomy to be reversed. They contrasted their current life with the life they hoped to lead, and didn't make the best of their current situation."

There's a lesson here for healthcare professionals, too, the authors wrote. Healthcare professionals want to give their patients hope and may be reluctant to correct false hopes. But patients may be better off facing the truth.

"While hopeful news may be easiest to deliver, it may not at all be in the interests of the recipients because it may interfere with emotional adaptation," the authors wrote.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times