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Can optimism make you healthier?

Power of Positive Thinking on Health
It turns out that faking a positive attitude may eventually give you a more upbeat outlook.
It turns out that faking a positive attitude may eventually give you a more upbeat outlook.
© OcusFocus/iStockphoto

Although several studies indicate optimism can boost heart health, it's not clear exactly why and how people who are positive thinkers experience this and other health benefits.

Scientists note that optimistic individuals typically have better coping skills when dealing with stress. Additionally, they're generally more likely to abstain from drinking alcohol and smoking nicotine, to eat healthier foods and to get more exercise than those with a pessimistic outlook [source: Starecheski].

Interestingly, it's not that optimistic people don't find themselves feeling frustrated, downhearted and cynical; it's just that optimistic people are able to let it go and refocus themselves on a positive outlook and outcomes. Positive thinkers aren't just able to put aside negative feelings while in the moment: Those with less negative thinking have more coping skills to maintain better long-term mental health than those with higher levels of negative thinking.

In one study, researchers asked participants to ruminate on their feelings of emptiness, hopelessness or sadness for eight minutes. Those participants who reported depressive symptoms including persistent negative thinking fell into a deeper and longer depression after the eight-minute experiment while those with a more optimistic outlook about life and self were able to distract themselves with positive thinking and self-talk and remain relatively unchanged by the experiment [source: Smith].

A separate study found postmenopausal women with cynical, hostile attitudes have higher rates of both coronary heart disease and higher mortality rates than women with more positive dispositions [source: Tindle et al.].

Those with a more pessimistic personality aren't doomed. Positive thinking patterns and coping strategies can be learned. One suggestion is to try to find something good about every situation, especially the difficult ones. For example, experts recommend those of us who naturally focus on negative outcomes mindfully refocus our thoughts on positive affirmations and on imagining positive outcomes to all situations, not only the difficult ones.

And while it may sound and feel silly, repeating positive statements to and about oneself every day and practicing positive thought patterns appears to have a beneficial effect on the brain. The habit helps the brain reorganize, repair and form new neural pathways, like an internal remodeling. The repeated optimistic self-talk may reshape the brain's thought patterns from a negative to a positive focus, a process called "inducing positive neuroplasticity." Essentially, if you want to become more optimistic, begin by purposefully refocusing your negative thoughts into positive ones. If you fake it long enough, you'll find you've trained your brain to have a less negative outlook.

In fact, it's estimated that by increasing CVD patients' levels of optimism through positive-thinking strategies, we could improve the heart health of Americans by 20 percent by 2020 [source: Forrest].