Headaches and hope

January 07, 1992

Two national surveys -- one on hope, one on headaches -- raise some intriguing possibilities. One survey, carried out by researchers at the University of Kansas, found that hope plays a surprisingly large role in helping people succeed in school, on their jobs and in coping with tragic illness. The second, by doctors at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, found that, contrary to popular belief, migraine headaches plague the poor more than the rich.

Both studies were the largest of their kind ever undertaken. Naturally we wondered how the two findings might be related. For example, is the fact that rich people suffer fewer migraine headaches a direct result of their having a more hopeful outlook on life? Conversely, are poor people more susceptible to the painful, throbbing headaches known as migraine largely because they lack much expectation of improving their situation?

The implications of these findings extend well beyond academic psychology and medicine. If hope is indeed crucial to success in life, every effort ought to be made to nurture such attitudes among impoverished children. The experience of Eugene Lang, a wealthy businessman who promised to put every child in the sixth grade class at his old school in a poor New York City neighborhood through college if they stayed in school, seems to confirm the theory that hope is a powerful determinant: In a system where more than half the children dropped out of school, 90 percent of Lang's youngsters graduated and went on to college.

One of the Kansas study's key findings was that hope involves not only a belief that things can get better but also some practical way of achieving one's goals. In Lang's case, it was college scholarships. For Maryland's Project Independence, which helps poor women get off welfare by offering them job-training and free child care, it is both the promise of self-sufficiency and the practical tools needed to turn it into reality that make it a success.

What's new in all this? Didn't Norman Vincent Peale discover the "power of positive thinking" years ago? Recall also that the upbeat 1950s were years of prosperity. There may be a lesson in that for the lean and mean 1990s, which may go down in history as the decade in which the rich had hope and the poor got headaches.

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