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A Healthy Dose of Optimism
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. One study highlighted how optimism or pessimism may affect, or even predict, your recovery from a major life event. Those who had a more positive outlook bounced back faster than those who did not..
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 or managed.
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.
- Accentuating their own unique talents—There is no use comparing yourself to others in a competitive manner. Everyone is different and brings something unique to the table. The key is to focus on what you can do, not what you cannot do.
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
University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center
Canadian Psychological Association
Can optimism make a difference in your life? University of Rochester Medical Center website. Available at: http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=4511. Accessed April 29, 2015.
Kivimaki M, Vahtera J, et al. Optimism and pessimism as predictors of change in health after death or onset of severe illness in family. Health Psychol. 2005;24(4):413-421.
Optimism and health. Harvard Medical School website. Available at: http://harvardpartnersinternational.staywellsolutionsonline.com/HealthNewsLetters/69,N0508b. Updated May 1, 2008. Accessed April 29, 2015.
Positive thinking : Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/positive-thinking/art-20043950. Updated March 4, 2014. Accessed April 29, 2015.
Segerstrom S, Taylor S, et al. Optimism is associated with mood, coping and immune change in response to stress. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1998;74(6):1646-1655.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 04/2015
- Update Date: 04/29/2015