Can optimism make you healthier?

Thinking about what you can do rather than what you can’t do could catalyze a positive shift in your health.
Thinking about what you can do rather than what you can’t do could catalyze a positive shift in your health.
© lzf/iStockphoto

About 7.5 years. That's how much longer researchers found people with positive self-perceptions of aging live after the death of a spouse, compared to their widowed peers with negative feelings about growing old [sources: Martikainen and Valkonen, Levy et al.]. That data is in a study from the 1990s, and scientific evidence continues to suggest those of us who see the glass as half-full report better mental and physical health than those who see the glass as half-empty. Positive thinkers appear to have greater resilience — including fewer cases of the common cold, lower rates of depression and lower levels of distress, in addition to a lower incidence of dying from heart disease [source: Mayo Clinic].

Optimists expect positive outcomes and make statements to others and to themselves (known as self-talk) that focus on "I can" rather than "I can't." Positive thinkers make positive statements — aloud or as part of an internal narrative — such as, "I am conquering my illness," or "I choose happiness." Pessimists, on the other hand, expect the worst. They expect negative outcomes and often experience anxiety, despair and sadness [sources: Zagorski, Scheier et al.].

Optimism and pessimism are what's known as cognitive constructs. We learn and understand the world around us through our personal experiences and interactions, as well as through our reactions to those experiences. There are two types of optimists: the dispositional optimist, for whom optimism is a personality trait (you could say dispositional optimists are born that way); and the situational optimist, who is able to imagine positive outcomes only for some situations. Pessimists fall into similar categories.

Although it remains unclear exactly why optimism is good for us, there's an association between having a positive outlook and having both better coping skills and better cardiovascular health. Heart disease, an umbrella term for multiple cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), is the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S., killing 610,000 Americans each year. That's one in four. Overall, CVDs are responsible for killing more Americans than the total deaths from all cancers combined annually. And the most common type of heart disease, coronary heart disease, is responsible for killing more than 370,000 of those 610,000 [source: CDC].

But when researchers at the University of Illinois studied the effects of optimism on heart health specifically, they found self-reported optimists were between 50 and 76 percent more likely to also score well on seven other metrics. Those are the same metrics outlined in the American Health Association's (AHA) Life's Simple 7 campaign: blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), fasting plasma glucose and serum cholesterol levels, dietary intake, physical activity and tobacco use. And those with most optimistic outlooks were also twice as likely to score in the ideal heart health range [source: Hernandez et al.].

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].

Author's Note: Can optimism make you healthier?

Mortality salience is the moment when a person realizes that one day his or her death is inevitable. When a person is realistic and prepared for the (inevitable) signs and effects of growing older, is it the optimist or the pessimist who is likely to cope with the negative self-perceptions of aging? It depends on what study you read, it turns out.

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Sources

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