“Choose to be optimistic, it feels better.” – the Dalai Lama

In my last post, I wrote about research that shows people tend to become less optimistic as they grow older. While there are good reasons why this is the case, the health benefits of remaining optimistic throughout our lives are substantial.

In simple terms, an optimistic outlook equals good health.

Source: mimagephotography/Shutterstock

This discussion hinges on what psychologists call dispositional optimism, the degree to which people believe that positive outcomes will occur in the future, for themselves, and also for others they know, the economy, the world in general, and so on.

More than five decades of research have found that optimism is a potent health tonic. Optimistic people remain healthier and live longer. They have better cardiovascular health—even after risk factors are controlled for, stronger immune function, and lower levels of stress and pain. And healthy people who are optimistic report feeling better than equally healthy people who are pessimistic. When optimistic people encounter an adverse health event like coronary artery bypass surgery or orthopedic surgery, they bounce back faster. Perhaps most impressive, their survival rates after diagnoses of cancer, Type I diabetes, and HIV or AIDS are higher, and their quality of life even years later is superior.

The idea that being optimistic boosts our health may seem like common sense, but why it happens is less clear. Following is some of what research tells us about why there's a connection between optimism and good health, which boils down to four significant factors:

1. Optimists know more about their own health and about how to be healthy.

Knowledge is a necessary condition for maintaining good health and for bouncing back. Unless you know what makes you healthy, how will you perform the required actions to stay healthy? Optimists know more about what it takes to maintain good health and also track their health more closely. In a 2002 study, psychologists Nathan Radcliffe and William Klein found that optimistic people knew more about how and why heart attacks occur, and how six key risk factors like consuming alcohol, smoking, and stress cause heart attacks.

2. Optimists engage in healthier behaviors.

Study after study shows that the superior health knowledge of optimists translates into a constellation of healthier behaviors. For example, the 2002 study found that participants with greater optimism exercised more. Optimistic people are less likely to smoke and more likely to drink only moderate levels of alcohol. They get more sleep and better quality sleep. They have fewer anonymous sexual partners and they eat more fruits and vegetables. Optimists’ healthier actions lead to more positive health outcomes. These in turn promote healthy activities, producing a virtuous cycle for good health.

3. When facing a setback, optimists use more effective methods to deal with it.

Regardless of how optimistic we are, we all face setbacks. We may be diagnosed with a serious chronic condition or suffer a sudden accident or illness. Research shows that optimists are more effective in dealing with such stressors or traumas. They tend to use more approach-focused coping strategies (also known as engagement coping) which rely on confronting a problem head-on and finding ways to reduce its severity. When that is not possible, they seek ways to manage and control it.

For instance, an optimistic person with cancer may spend countless hours trying to understand the latest research and treatment options, then seek and obtain advice from multiple experts, and choose and diligently stick with a treatment option deemed to be the most effective based on their research and consultation.

Optimists also focus more on the problem itself rather than on reducing or managing emotions, such as fear or sadness, that may result from the problem. And they tend to use fewer disengagement coping methods that simply ignore the problem or sweep it under the rug. Choosing approach-focused coping that hones in on the problem itself (rather than the surrounding emotions) leads optimists to have a greater sense of control and ownership, and focus on implementing the solution to their medical problem. It is not surprising that optimists live longer and have a better quality of life after being diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, or AIDS.

4. Optimists have better social networks and receive greater support after adverse health events—or at least they believe that they do.

People tend to like optimists more than they like pessimists, and studies confirm that in terms of sheer number, optimists have more friends, stronger relationships with their friends, and fewer occurrences of negative social interactions. In short, they manage their relationships better, and as a result, when faced with adverse health events, they can rely on their social networks to a much greater degree and receive more support, managing the resulting stress more effectively.  

Even under circumstances in which they may not receive adequate support, their glass-half-full mentality means that they are more satisfied with their social relationships, even when the reality is different. (Just as interesting is the reverse effect—from social network size to optimism. Social psychologist Suzanne Segerstrom found that law students who were able to build larger social networks over a 10-year period showed increased optimism in that time.)

Incurable Optimism by Natalia Medd Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Incurable Optimism by Natalia Medd Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

I teach marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter @ud.

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