Happiness improves Outcomes–Silly idea that lasted 20 years

In 1989, a study from Stanford posited that support groups helped patients with cancer live longer. The study was flawed by small numbers (86 patients), the fact that the many patients who died early on were weighted less in the results than the few that had long survivals.

Immediately counseling groups developed cancer support programs, costing a fortune. Everyone wanted to feel “better” about their disease and reap the benefit of a longer life. It was amazing that this bad study’s impact was so great.

For the patient caught up in the maelstrom of bad science, in a subtle way, it became their fault that the disease progressed–because they didn’t have a positive enough outlook.

This all was proven to be nonsense as one would expect. In 2007 the same author, David Spiegel, in a small study (125) patients tried to “replicate” the previous flawed study. He found this time, as others have documented, no effect on survival from participation in these support groups.

In the interim Spiegel became a guru for support groups to improve survival of cancer patients and literally made a career speaking and appearing on TV flogging his bogus hypothesis. He’s still talking as noted in this NY Times article which takes an appropriately skeptical view of benefits of happiness.

Medicynical note: Having experienced cancer in a loved one I’m aware of the difference between being delusional and realistic; Between trying everything and trying everything that makes sense. One of the drivers of cost of health care in our culture is the notion that there must be “something” that will work and that we are all entitled to try everything. I’m not sure how we approach this.


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