People who learn to maintain an optimistic attitude may not only avoid depression, they may actually improve their physical health, according to a controlled study by the University of Pennsylvania's Martin Seligman, Ph.D., and Gregory Buchanan, Ph.D.

The study shows that university freshmen who participated in a workshop on cognitive coping skills reported fewer adverse physical problems and took a more active role in maintaining their health.

In the study, incoming freshmen were asked to complete a questionnaire designed to reflect their overall attitudes and coping behaviors.

Seligman and Buchanan invited those students identified as the most pessimistic to participate in the study. Students were randomly assigned to attend either the 16-hour workshop or a control group.

Workshop participants learned to dispute their chronic negative thoughts as well as learned social and work skills that can help avert depression.

Findings of Depression

After an 18-month follow-up, the preliminary findings showed that 22 percent of the workshop participants had suffered moderate or severe depression by blind clinical diagnosis, compared with 32 percent of the control group subjects.

Also, only 7 percent of the workshop participants suffered from a moderate or severe anxiety disorder, compared with 15 percent of the control group.

Workshop participants also reported fewer health problems during the course of the workshop, and were more likely than control subjects to see a physician for maintenance or checkups rather than wait until they became ill. While the subjects were young and generally healthy, Buchanan speculated the study could be replicated using older more vulnerable subjects.