Can it help you live longer?
Being optimistic certainly has advantages. Typically, these individuals have a more positive attitude about life. However, per several studies, optimism can actually provide numerous health benefits, including potentially living longer. How do you know if you’re optimistic person? What are the benefits that it offers? If you’re not normally an optimist, can you become one?
According to Winston Churchill, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Optimism is a mindset that allows us to view the world, other people and events in a more favorable, positive way. Many people equate optimism with happiness, but they aren’t the same thing. Others feel that optimists only see the positive in every situation, but this isn’t true, either. Nor does it mean that you engage in wishful or fantastical thinking. Numerous experts say that the real difference between optimists and pessimists is their ability to cope. Optimists believe that outcomes of events or experiences will generally be positive. However, they do acknowledge negative events, but they usually don’t blame themselves for the bad outcome, view bad situations as being permanent and expect there to be fewer positive events in the future. With a perspective like this, they’re more easily able to see the possibility for change.
Personality is complex, which has led many doctors to wonder if optimism is a hard-wired trait or can it be nurtured in some way. Many experts feel that it’s both a personality trait and a product of our environment. There is possibility that certain genes predispose some people to optimism. These are the same genes that help to control health and longevity. Studies have shown that optimism is about 25% inheritable. Obviously, there are several other factors that can affect our ability to be positive and many of them are out of our control. When it comes to being a product from our environment, this starts when we’re young. There is no question that babies and children can sense the emotional vibes in their homes. So, if their home environment is tense and filled with disfunction, then they’re less likely to be optimistic.
When asked to describe the events in their lives, there are three main things people use. If you group these factors together, it’s called their explanatory style and can influence whether they are more of optimist or pessimist. The first factor is whether something is stable or unstable. Does the person feel that time can change things or will they remain the same regardless? The next factor is if something is global or local. Does the current situation represent just one area of their life or their life as a whole? The final factor is internal or external. Does the person feel the events are caused by them or by an outside force? Optimists usually describe positive events as having happened because of their direct input (internal). In addition, they feel that more positive things will happen in the future (stable) and in other parts of their lives (global). When it comes to negative events, they don’t view them as being their fault (external), they see them as being an abnormality (unstable) that doesn’t have anything do with other areas of their lives or future events (local). Pessimists think in the opposite way. One of the interesting things that research shows is that positive moods are associated with more left-side brain activity, while negative emotions are associated with more right-side brain activity. Almost everyone can be classified into either group based off of their brain wave patterns. Only 15% of people aren’t classified as one or the other. These patterns are strong indicators of how we will react to certain situations. Realists are individuals who can see things relatively clearly, but, as the research points out, most of us aren’t realists. We all, to some degree, attribute the events in our lives either optimistically or pessimistically.
Research shows that optimism can have a profound positive affect a person’s mental and physical health. Optimists have healthier outlooks and tend to live longer than pessimists and are less susceptible to the negative effects of illness, fatigue, stress and depression. Since they believe in themselves and their abilities, they expect good things to happen, which means they’ll take more risks and create more positive events in their lives. Basically, they don’t give up as easily, which means they are more likely to achieve success. Optimists are better at proactively managing stress than pessimists or realists, so they typically have less stressful lives. Optimism is closely linked to physical and mental resilience, even among those who have been through extremely traumatic life events or medical situations. A 2008 study of 2,873 healthy men and women found that optimism was directly linked to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This was true even after taking age, employment, income, ethnicity, obesity, smoking and depression into account. Some other possible benefits are decreased levels of adrenaline, better immune function and less active clotting systems. A different study, from scientists in Finland with 616 middle-aged men looked at how optimism impacted blood pressure. When the study started, all the participants had normal blood pressure. Each participant had to fill out a questionnaire regarding his expectations for the future. In addition, each one was evaluated for cardiovascular risk factors, like smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, alcohol abuse and a family history of hypertension. Over the four-year study period, highly pessimistic men were three times more likely to develop hypertension than those who were optimistic, even after other risk factors were taken into account. An American study of 2,564 men and women who were 65 and older found similar results. Several other studies have shown that being optimistic is associated with a 50% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and greater survival rates when fighting cancer when compared to individuals who are pessimistic. When experts reviewed 15 studies that collectively included almost 230,000 men and women, they found that optimists had a 35% lower risk for the most serious complications due to heart disease. Optimism might be able to protect you against some common illnesses. In a 2006 study, scientists looked at the personality style of 193 healthy individuals and then gave each a common respiratory virus. The results showed that those who had a positive personality style were less likely to develop viral symptoms than those who didn’t. Another great finding is that optimism might increase longevity. In the early 1960s, an American study looking at 839 people for optimism and longevity was performed. At the beginning of the study, the individuals had to take a psychological test for optimism-pessimism and complete medical evaluation. After 30 years, the people were rechecked and it was found that for every 10-point increase in pessimism on the optimism–pessimism test, the mortality rate rose 19%. A different US study looked at 6,959 students entering the University of North Carolina in the mid-1960s. They were required to take a comprehensive personality test. Over the next 40 years, 476 of the people died from a variety of causes, with cancer being the most common. Pessimistic individuals had a 42% higher rate of death than those who were optimistic. One thing that seems to be certain across all the studies is that the mind-body connection benefit holds up across all age groups from teenagers to those in their 90s.
Critics say that it’s possible that optimists have longer, healthier lives because they have healthier lifestyles, create stronger social support networks and receive better medical care. Since people who are healthy are more likely to have a positive outlook, maybe optimism is the result of good health, not the cause. So, to counter this argument, many researchers have adjusted their results to take into account pre-existing medical conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and depression. They found that the medical conditions didn’t impact the benefits of a positive outlook on life. In addition, with using long-term studies that track people over 15, 30 and 40 years, the potential bias of pre-existing conditions is minimized. If you’re an optimist, this is great news. If you’re not, don’t worry there are things you can do to change your outlook and reap the benefits of becoming more optimistic.
One of the main reasons why pessimists can change their thinking is because these patterns are learned to some extent. There is a process called cognitive restructuring that can help you become more optimistic by consciously challenging negative, self-limiting thinking and replacing it with more positive thought patterns. Essentially, anyone can learn to be optimistic. One of the main goals is to find purpose in work and life because when we have a purpose, we feel more fulfilled and better able to see things in a positive light. Cognitive restructuring is consciously altering your thought processes to re-wire your brain to think this way. The measures you can use are relatively uncomplicated and low-cost. One of the easiest is shifting your perspective by consciously thinking happy thoughts, which is referred to as positive reframing. While initially it can be challenging, in time, it becomes effortless. Not only does this change your viewpoint in the short term, but it actually trains your brain to think more positively in the long-term. All emotions, whether negative or positive, are contagious. This is why who you spend time with can affect your outlook. If you generally spend time with people who have positive outlooks, yours will be too. The opposite is also true. Gratitude is defined as the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself. This is also known as a general state of thankfulness. Obviously, this can be helpful in fostering an optimistic outlook. The issue is that it’s hard to remain grateful throughout day to-day stressors. One way that people find easy is by journaling for a few minutes each day. As you finish each day, write down one or two things that you experienced during the day that filled you with gratitude. It’s important to realize that this could be anything. Another good exercise is to think about and write down best possible outcomes for various areas of your life, like career or friendships. It’s also crucial to start acknowledging your personal and professional achievements. All of these things help to create a sense of self-esteem and this builds confidence. When you feel confident, you’re more optimistic about life. If you’re constantly expecting the worst because you’re hoping to protect yourself from disappointment., you’re missing out on the positive anticipation of events. It’s inevitable, you’ll be disappointed at times no matter what. If given the choice to set positive expectations that are occasionally proven wrong or negative expectations that are occasionally proven right, always choose the first option. Remember, most of the negative things we predict never actually happen and if they do, we usually recover pretty quickly. Identifying your negative thoughts is essential to try to change them. If you feel yourself starting to enter a pessimistic spiral, the key thing is recognizing this and then arguing with yourself as if you were having a discussion with an external person whose is trying to make you miserable. Using this technique requires a little practice, but most people can acquire it within a few days. Intentionally counteract your negative thoughts with positive ones, which will help you to put things in perspective. If you find yourself about to say something negative, stop and replace it with something positive, even if it doesn’t feel right to you at the moment. You probably know someone who has a positive outlook. So, the next time you start thinking negatively, ask yourself what this person would do and try to think this way too. One final tip is to visualize your best possible self. Take several moments to imagine your dream life in 10 years and then write about it once a week for six to eight minutes each time over one or two months. Each time focus on one area of your life, like family, career, romance or health. This can help to increase your levels of optimism because you’re strengthening your optimistic muscles by looking at all your dreams coming true as opposed to worrying about the worst possible outcomes. This doesn’t mean that you ignore the negative aspects of your life. You still need to address them in order to improve them, but the goal is to create a more positive outlook overall.
While it can be a challenge to have optimism under normal life circumstances, it’s especially hard right now due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Every aspect of life is now different. The term “social distancing” has become commonplace. We were accustomed to relative stability and predictability, but now fear and uncertainty are rampant as there are new rules, limitations and changes that we must follow. Not only is optimism hard to maintain, but anxiety is thriving and it can lead us into some dark mental spaces. When we’re anxious, our brain desperately seeks to find some sense of certainty. If it can’t find this, it fills the uncertainty with worst-case scenarios, even if we know these scenarios are based on limited information. This can lead us into panic, avoidance, rash decisions or depression. Not only does this drain our energy, it decreases our sense of hope that things will get better, which can overpower our rational state of mind.
Despite all of this, you can find hope with some intentional effort. There’s no question that you want to be informed about what is happening to keep you and your family safe, but the news and current state of media and politics make it very hard for people to be optimistic because whenever you turn on the news or read the paper, you barraged with negativity and a bleak outlook on the world. In order to combat this, limit your consumption of the news to just enough time to learn what is going on. Since the general guidelines are not likely to change in a few hours, this will allow you to get the knowledge you need while being aware of your own emotional and psychological limits. If you notice that you’re feeling agitated, fearful or depleted while taking in the news, then it’s indication you should take a break. If you feel the need to process what you’ve heard, consider having a healthy discussion about it with a friend or family member. This is a great way to absorb the information but also presents a way to discuss it and balance your views. Since fear and depression can make you feel powerless, focus on what you can control because this will help restore your sense of organization and self-confidence. The things in your control can be as simple as your daily and nightly routine, what you eat and what you wear each day. One way to realize all of the things within your control is make a list of these items. It’s also critical to use your time wisely and stick to a routine. It can be helpful to take time to create a new schedule that has space for breaks, lunch and chatting with friends. Another great opportunity is to continue taking steps toward your personal goals, such as exercise, reading, writing, honing old skills or acquiring new skills. Being productive helps promote a sense of hope that you and your life are progressing even when it feels like the world is at a standstill. Another way we can find hope is in what Mister Rogers has always said, “When I was a boy, I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” There are many stories of people helping those in need. People are taking the time to not only help those that they know, but strangers. It’s important to realize that your anxiety and depression can minimize these stories, so it’s vital to seek them out and remind yourself that there are people who care and are doing what they can to make the situation better. Surrounding yourself with uplifting people, activities and thoughts helps to encourage a more optimistic and joyful mindset. Remember, the more you see, think and do that reflects peace, happiness and positivity, the more it impacts your mood and outlook. All of us have been asked to come together under extraordinary circumstances. By participating in the specified safety measures, we’re all working together. While it may not feel significant, it is because we’re protecting one another. Everyone’s seemingly small efforts add up and have a tremendous impact on our communities.
It’s vital to understand that positive-minded individuals are able to adapt and thrive. So, accept what you can and cannot control in any situation. Remember, each situation has a positive and negative side. Focus on the positive. If you’re a pessimistic, it took you years to get that way, so don’t expect your mindset to change overnight. However, with practice, it’ll become easier. A combination of optimism and realistic thinking will help you navigate through life in a positive manner that supports your optimism with action steps to create a positive future.