A Pessimist Explains Why Optimism Is Good for You
New research shows how optimism can translate into better physical health.
Posted July 13, 2018
This guest post was contributed by Jung Jang, a graduate student in the USC Psychology Department's Clinical Science program.
I am a pessimist. By that, I mean I am thinking about how this self-revelation is going to shoo away readers, and how those who remained curious are going to be disappointed by the end of this piece of crap (Yes, two sentences in, I am already convinced that my writing will have a very low quality). If either prediction turned out to be the case, then fine. I figured so and had been mentally prepared for the hurt. If both predictions turned out to be false, and some people found this post useful and interesting somehow, then great! What a pleasant surprise! So what do I have to lose for being a pessimist?
Well, the answer is: a lot! One aspect you might not think of is with physical illness. Cancer patients who are pessimistic, for example, are more likely to experience fatigue and distress, which lead to social isolation. But instead of continuing to enumerate how bad it is, I would like to focus on the benefits of optimism—the positive stuff for a change.
Optimism, in the context of potentially life-threatening illnesses, translates into positive—sometimes even unrealistically positive—expectations about the prognosis of a disease and the confidence in one’s ability to control and manage the problem. While we are often advised to pursue striking the balance between two extremes, with optimism-pessimism as no exception, dealing with a disease seems to be one aspect in life where we might be better off being biased toward one. Indeed, converging evidence has shown that optimism may promote favorable health outcome.
Researchers from the University of Kansas and Carnegie Mellon University conducted a meta-analysis to summarize published data from 83 studies. Based on thousands of people included in these studies, they concluded that optimism is associated with benefits in survival, pain management, immune function, cardiovascular function, and physical function. This relationship held true among a wide range of patients, including those with cancer, HIV/AIDS, other chronic illnesses (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis), and major surgeries.
You might ask, what if the direction of causality goes the other way around? Is it possible that people who enjoy positive health outcomes tend to be optimistic? To clarify which one predicts the other, these researchers looked separately at the studies that followed their participants and performed repeated assessments over time. They reported that optimism found at the initial assessment predicted positive health outcomes months and years later.
We have yet to discover how optimism helps buffer the negative effects of physical illness. It is likely that there would be a web of psychological, contextual, and neurobiological factors that are interconnected and influencing one another. One possible explanation may be that optimistic people are better at adjusting to illness by actively looking for meaning in the experience of adversity. They might express greater appreciation of their life, others they can rely on in confronting challenges, and strengths they didn’t realize they had. The theory of posttraumatic growth (because receiving a diagnosis of serious illness can parallel other types of trauma in its unexpectedness, threat to life, and generating a host of intense emotions) highlights significant positive shifts people make to update their views of health, relationships, quality of life, values, and priorities in the face of difficult reality thrust upon them.
Then, what does this mean for us pessimists? Does this mean that we are poorly equipped to deal with declining health and forever doomed when we get seriously ill? Before jumping to a conclusion, we might want to think about how we make sense of optimism and pessimism. As alluded to earlier, optimism and pessimism are best understood as a continuum, rather than a mutually exclusive dichotomy. My declaration of being a pessimist doesn’t automatically mean that I can’t be an optimist. I may have optimistic outlook on my relationships even though I have pessimistic views on my writing abilities.
With this understanding, there may be a room for intervention. In laboratory settings, researchers induced positive expectancy about the future by asking participants to imagine the Best Possible Self and to write about the future life where everything worked out for the best. Using this exercise, researchers at the Maastrict University in the Netherlands have demonstrated that increased optimism mitigated the difficulties in higher-level thinking abilities (e.g., making response decisions on switching tasks) due to experience of pain. In psychotherapy, it might enhance optimism and positive expectations when clients are asked to describe what it would look like if their problems magically disappeared, and their dreams came true. This in turn might allow them to think about what they still can do, what resources they have despite limitations, and how they can work toward maximizing the quality of life by achieving some of the goals to an extent. In essence, this process of taking different perspectives resembles what happens in the posttraumatic growth.
This suggestion is by no means to invalidate the despair, devastation, and fear that accompany illness. Nor is this to wag my finger at the afflicted by saying that they’ve got to stop negative thinking and instead do more positive thinking. Rather, this is to say that not doing the bad stuff is not the same as doing good stuff. Reducing junk food in your diet probably has a different effect from eating more vegetables on maintaining your cardiovascular health. Understanding the benefits of optimism and figuring out ways to utilize it, in this case, may open up different opportunities to adjust to illness. And realizing this makes me, a pessimist, feel optimistic.
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