My husband and I were psychological opposites. I’ve always seen the glass as half-full; to him it was half-empty. That difference, research findings suggest, is likely why I pursue good health habits with a vengeance while he was far less inclined to follow the health-promoting lifestyle I advocated.
I’m no cockeyed optimist, but I’ve long believed that how I eat and exercise, as well as how I view the world, can benefit my mental and physical well-being.
An increasing number of recent long-term studies have linked greater optimism to a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other chronic ailments and to fostering “exceptional longevity,” a category one team of researchers used for people who live to 85 and beyond.
Admittedly, the relationship between optimism and better health and a longer life is still only a correlation that doesn’t prove cause and effect. But there is also now biological evidence to suggest that optimism can have a direct impact on health, which should encourage both the medical profession and individuals to do more to foster optimism as a potential health benefit.
According to Dr Alan Rozanski, one of the field’s primary researchers, “It’s never too early and it’s never too late to foster optimism. From teenagers to people in their 90s, all have better outcomes if they’re optimistic.”
Rozanski is a cardiologist at Mount Sinai St Luke’s Hospital in New York who became interested in optimism while working in a cardiac rehabilitation programme early in his career.
In an interview, he explained, “Many heart-attack patients who had long been sedentary would come into the gym and say ‘I can’t do that!’ But I would put them on the treadmill, start off slowly and gradually build them up. Their attitude improved, they became more confident. One woman in her 70s said her heart attack may have been the best thing that had happened to her because it transformed what she thought she could do.”
In a major analysis of 15 studies involving 229,391 participants published in September in JAMA Network Open, Rozanski and colleagues found that people who ranked high in optimism were much less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event and had a lower mortality rate from any cause than did pessimistic participants in the studies.
“The data are very consistent,” he said. “In every case, there was a strong relationship between optimism and a lower risk of disease. Optimists tend to take better care of their health. They’re more likely to exercise and eat better and are less likely to smoke.”
Rozanski added, “There’s also a biological effect. Pessimists bathe their bodies in damaging stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine all day long. Pessimism increases inflammation in the body and fosters metabolic abnormalities like diabetes. Pessimism is also on the way to depression, which the American Heart Association considers a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.”
Another researcher, Julia K Boehm, a psychologist at Chapman University in Orange, California, said: “Optimism promotes problem-solving. It helps people deal with challenges and obstacles in more effective ways. Optimists tend to pursue strategies that make a rosy future a reality. Their hearts are not constantly pounding.”
In contrast, she said, “Pessimists tend not to be open to the possibility of favourable outcomes, and the fight-or-flight response they experience amps up bodily systems that over a long period of time wear the body down.”
Boehm and colleagues examined the association of optimism with three health behaviours – physical activity, diet and cigarette smoking – and found that more optimistic individuals were more likely to engage in healthier behaviours. Their findings were published in 2018 in Circulation Research.
Lewina O Lee, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, and colleagues analysed several decades of data from women in the Nurses’ Health Study and men in the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study.
They found that, on average, those with higher levels of optimism, as measured by an assessment tool called the Life Orientation Test, lived longer. Among the most optimistic study participants, the women had a 50 per cent greater chance and the men a 70 per cent greater chance of surviving to age 85.
In an interview, Lee said that optimists are better able than pessimists to reframe challenging circumstances and react to them in less stressful ways. They’re also more likely to embrace a can-do attitude toward life and persist in trying to overcome obstacles rather than think there’s nothing they can do about a bad situation, she said.
Although the evidence indicates that a person’s outlook on life tends to stay stable over time, given the potential health benefits of optimism, I asked Rozanski if there might be a way to foster greater optimism in chronic pessimists.
He cited the tenets of cognitive behavioural therapy, which can help people develop better coping skills and counter negative thoughts.
“Our thinking is habitual, not conscious, so the first step is to learn to catch yourself when thinking negatively and make a commitment to change how you look at things,” he advised. “Recognise that the way you’re thinking is not necessarily the only way to think about a situation. Just that thought alone can decrease the toxic effect of negativity. Step two is to substitute a better thought that is credible.”
Rozanski likened the practice to increasing muscle strength, “gradually building a ‘muscle’ of positive thinking, for example, by trying to feel more grateful.”
I also asked these experts whether there’s a downside to optimism. The answer: Not if it’s realistic and fosters views and outcomes that are within the realm of possibility.
Taken to the extreme, however, they cautioned that undue optimism may prompt some people to ignore potential threats and take foolish chances, while people who harbour a modest degree of pessimism may be better prepared emotionally to accept negative outcomes, like losing one’s job, home or spouse.
On the whole, though, optimists tend to be happier people who are better able to bounce back from a serious loss and perhaps even parlay it into a vocational, emotional or financial gain.
To assess your level of optimism, consider how strongly you agree with each of these statements:
— In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.
— I’m always optimistic about my future.
— Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad.
Or, assess your degree of pessimism based on how strongly you identify with these statements:
— I hardly ever expect things to go my way.
— I rarely count on good things happening to me.
— If something can go wrong for me, it will.
By Jane E Brody © 2018 The New York Times