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A Healthy Dose of Optimism

IMAGE Take a close look at that glass of water. Half empty? Half full? What you see could make a difference, not only in your daily health, but in how long you live. In one 1960s study, participants who scored high on a pessimism scale turned out to have a 19% greater chance of premature death than those who scored more optimistically.

The Power of Optimism

Being optimistic is thought to prolong life because optimists tend to:

  • Be less passive than pessimists and less likely to develop learned helplessness or negative and debilitating responses to things that happen to them
  • Be more likely to practice preventive health measures because they believe their actions make a difference
  • Suffer depression at a markedly lower rate than pessimists
  • Have better functioning immune systems

The Bright Side

For decades, psychologists have studied the link between positive thinking and physical and mental health. However, it is more important to change negative thought patterns into positive ones than to worry about being optimistic.

Several studies have found that people who don't give in to negative thoughts may win more elections, get better grades, win more athletic contests, and earn higher pay.

Why would this be so? Optimism and pessimism both tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies. Pessimism makes you feel defeated and less likely to take constructive action. Optimism makes you more likely to act.

Optimist vs. Non-optimist

How can you determine whether you think more optimistically or pessimistically? It may have to do with how you explain events in your life.

Optimists tend to see setbacks as specific, temporary, and changeable. Because of this, they are motivated to take action. Non-optimists tend to look at setbacks as general, permanent, and hopeless—symptoms of widespread failure that cannot be changed.

For example, an optimist who did not follow through on an exercise routine for a week might say, "I had a lot going on this week. I did not plan my time too well. I will have to do better next week." A pessimist in the same situation might say, "I have no self-discipline. I obviously will not be able to meet my goals. Exercise just is not for me."

A Good Mood

Mood can also influence whether optimistic or pessimistic thoughts dominate your brain by changing how you interpret situations. Most people are a blend of optimism and pessimism, depending on the situation.

Optimistic people tend to lift their moods using:

  • Alternative thinking—When bad things happen, optimists tend to take them less personally and come up with multiple alternatives for why they might have happened, then work actively to fix the situation.
  • Downward comparison—Though it sounds unkind, optimists compare themselves to others who are in worse situations as a way to brighten their own spirits.
  • Relaxation—Optimists tend to use exercise, yoga and other ways to relax and improve their moods.

Optimism: Not Always the Answer

Not everyone agrees that the solution to good health lies in being optimistic. There is more to it than just that. For example, excessive optimism can be harmful to one's health as is evident among teenagers, who take many risks. It can be damaging to think optimistically when it comes to difficult health choices like quitting smoking, using condoms, or wearing seatbelts.

A better strategy may be to be a bit pessimistic when making decisions that involve risk and the cost of failure is high, and to be a bit optimistic when achievement is your goal, which may boost your morale.

Negative to Positive Thinking

Optimism, like other interpersonal skills, can be learned. One technique is to write about setbacks and practice arguing with your less optimistic thoughts until a more realistic vision of what has happened and what is likely to happen in the future emerges.

It takes focus to change negative thoughts into positive ones. But, with a little practice, we can all incorporate a healthy dose of optimism into our lives.

  • American Counseling Association

    http://www.counseling.org

  • Positive Psychology Center

    University of Pennsylvania

    http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu

  • Canadian Psychological Association

    http://www.cpa.ca

  • Healthy Canadians

    http://www.healthycanadians.gc.ca

  • Optimism and health. Harvard Medical School website. Available at: http://harvardpartnersinternational.staywellsolutionsonline.com/HealthNewsLetters/69,N0508b. Updated May 1, 2008. Accessed September 10, 2013.

  • Segerstrom S, Taylor S, Kemeny M, Fahey J. Optimism is associated with mood, coping and immune change in response to stress. APA PsycNET website. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1998 June;74(6):1646-55. Available at: http://taylorlab.psych.ucla.edu/1998%5FOptimism%20is%20Associated%20with%20Mood,%20Coping,%20and%20Immune%20Change%20in%20Response%20to%20Stress.pdf. Accessed September 10, 2013.