Optimism and Health

Optimism and Health

July 2009

Shift from the dark side

Did you know that your outlook on life can impact your health and quality of life?  There’s and ever-expanding body of research examining how your outlook may relate to various aspects of health, feelings of well-being, quality of life and even longevity.

Consider the evidence

Studies have found that people with an optimistic outlook have an overall positive sense of well being and are less prone to depression.

Since 1994, researchers have examined results from the Women’s Health Initiative, a study involving nearly 100,000 women age 50 and over.  Among recent findings, women who have an optimistic outlook lived healthier and longer lives compared with pessimistic women.

During eight years of follow-up, optimists were 30 percent less likely to die of heart disease and 14 percent less likely to die of any cause as compared with pessimists.

Another study, published in 2004, looked at longevity among more than 900 older adults.  Those with an optimistic outlook had a 28 percent lower risk or early death than did older adults who were pessimistic.  The optimists also were 77 percent less likely than were the pessimists to die of heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular diseases.

More recently, a Mayo Clinic study examined the mortality rate of more than 7,000 people who completed a personality test in the early 1960s.  Follow-up took place over four decades.  Researchers found that for every 100 study participants, the 25 who scored as being the most pessimistic, anxious and depressed had about a 39 percent greater chance of dying than did those who were the most optimistic, least anxious and least depressed.

Similar results were reported in an earlier Mayo Clinic study that involved more than 800 people and had a follow-up period of 30 years.  Those who had a pessimistic thinking style had a 19 percent increase in risk of death when compared with their optimistic counterparts.

As for quality of life, optimists reported having fewer health problems and fewer difficulties with work or daily routines, and they were generally happier, calmer and more peaceful.  In addition, they experienced less pain, had more energy and reported greater ease in social activities.

Changing negative self-talk

While studies suggest a positive attitude is associated with a longer and healthier life, changing one’s thinking pattern can be challenging – but it is possible.

One important step is to identify negative self-talk.  In order to change, it’s helpful to understand the problem.  Conversations you have with others are part of everyday life, and often you can easily remember what others said to you.

But often, below the external conversation there’s an ongoing stream of self-talk and thoughts that run through your mind.  If your stream includes negative self-talk, start challenging it.  For instance, your friend says, “This is a great dessert.”  If you’re pessimistic, you may think, “I over cooked the dessert.  I’m a horrible cook.”

Psychologists have identified some common negative thought patterns you may encounter:

  • Polarizing – You think in terms of things being all or nothing, good or bad, and there’s no middle ground.  You either succeeded or totally failed.
  • Filtering – You minimize or even filter out positive aspects and focus only on whatever might be negative.  You may even find yourself magnifying the negative.
  • Catastrophizing – You always anticipate and believe the worst.
  • Personalizing – When something bad occurs, you assume you’re the problem and blame yourself.

Do your best to stop these negative thoughts and challenge them with rational thoughts.

Shift your perspective

One’s general attitude in life is likely attributable to a combination of nature and nurture – family genes combined with upbringing and ongoing life experiences that help frame your unique perspective.

If you tend to be on the pessimistic side, can you adjust your attitude?  For some, self-help strategies may work.  For others, treatment from someone trained to apply the principles and tools of positive psychology may be needed.

Remember – change is possible once you become aware of ways in which your current viewpoint influences how you think and feel.  Here are some steps you can take:

  • Refocus your perspective – Everyone has ups and downs.  Just because something goes wrong, doesn’t mean you’re doomed to fail.  Refocus when your thinking is clouded by negative thoughts.
  • Look for the good in life – Try this in situations you might normally write off as being a lost cause.  For instance,  if you lose all of your garden tomato plants to blight, look at it as an opportunity to learn more about gardening from tomato growers at your local farmers market.
  • Be grateful and savor good times – Take stock of what you have to be grateful for.  Gratitude can help you shift the focus to what’s good in your life.  Cherish the times when all is well – those memories can be invaluable when times are rough.
  • Look for pleasure in small things – Find simple pleasure in everyday things, like walking your dog, sitting on the deck with a glass of iced tea, reading a good book, or just sitting and talking with a friend.
  • Practice random kindness – Reaching beyond yourself to treat friends and even strangers with unexpected kindness not only enriches them, but it also can help you feel better.
  • Reconsider your pessimism of others – Constantly thinking or talking in a pessimistic or critical way won’t fix the problem, and it can dampen your mood and the moods of those around you.  Reduce the frequency with which you discuss the issues that irritate you.  Or, try challenging yourself to look for the positive aspect in things you dislike.

Positive Psychology

The practice of psychology generally is associated with helping people who have a mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.  But can psychology actually make people happier?  Those in the emerging field of positive psychology say that psychology should be concerned with:

  • Personal strengths, not just human weaknesses
  • Building strength, reiliency and a feeling of a fulfillment, no just repairing the damage
  • Identifying and nurturing talents, not just healing disease

Positive psychology focuses on people’s strengths and virtues and how individuals can build upon these tributes in their lives.

Source: Mayo Clinic Health Letter, Volume 27, Number 7, July 2009