When challenges come our way, it may be easy to succumb to negative thoughts. But look on the bright side — optimistic thinking isn’t just in our heads. Thinking positively can also boost our physical and mental health Personality and quality of life: the importance of optimism and goal adjustment. Wrosch, C., Scheier, M.F. Department of Psychology, Concordia University, Montreal, QC, Canada. Quality of Life Research, 2003;12 Suppl 1:59-72..
The Power of Positive — The Need-to-Know
Optimistic thinkers tend to anticipate the best possible outcome in any situation. (I may have totaled my car, but thank goodness for insurance!) And research suggests seeing the glass half-full is good for our health, career, and love life. Studies have found self-reported optimism predicts lower rates of mortality and cancer, and better cardiovascular health and immune function Optimism and physical health: a meta-analytic review. Rasmussen, H.N., Scheier, M.F., Greenhouse, J.B. Institute for Educational Research and Public Service, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2009 Jun;37(3):239-56. Epub 2009 Aug 27. Optimism-pessimism assessed in the 1960s and self-reported health status 30 years later. Maruta, T., Colligan, R.C., Malinchoc, M., et al. Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2002 Aug;77(8):748-53.. Other research has found the benefits of positive thinking are especially pronounced in low-income countries Is the emotion-health connection a “first-world problem?” Pressman, S.D., Gallagher, M.W., Lopez, S.J. Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA. Psychological Science 2013 Apr;24(4):544-9..
One study even suggests optimism helps women battle breast cancer (although researchers asked patients to remember how optimistic they were before their diagnosis, so the results might not be perfectly accurate) Breast cancer, psychological distress, and life events among young women. Peled, R., Carmil, D., Siboni-Samocha, O., et al. Department of Health Systems Management, Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel. Bio Med Central, 2008; 8: 245.. And elderly people who hold positive stereotypes about old age generally recover better from disability than those who think negatively Association between positive age stereotypes and recovery from disability in older persons. Levy, B.R., Slade, M.D., Murphy, T.E., et al. Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Yale School of Public Health, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. JAMA 2012 Nov 21;308(19):1972-3..
Some psychologists think optimists tend to be healthier because they cope better when they can’t meet their goals Personality and quality of life: the importance of optimism and goal adjustment. Wrosch, C., Scheier, M.F. Department of Psychology, Concordia University, Montreal, QC, Canada. Quality of Life Research, 2003;12 Suppl 1:59-72.. It’s also possible that people who think positively attribute less significance to stressful events Can Positive Thinking Help? Positive automatic thoughts as moderators of the stress-meaning relationship. Boyraz, G., Lightsey, OR Jr. Tennessee State University, Nashville, TN 37219, USA. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 2012 Apr;82(2):267-77..
But the benefits of optimism go beyond a clean bill of health. Forget the raving resume — there may be a connection between positive thinking and landing a stellar job. Optimists also have a better chance of securing a stable, loving relationship Optimism: an enduring resource for romantic relationships. Assad, K.K., Donnellan, M.B., Conger, R.D. Department of Psychology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007 Aug;93(2):285-97.. Still, thinking positively may be easier said than done.
Every Little Thing Is Gonna' Be All Right — Your Action Plan
While some psychologists think we can learn to be optimists, other experts believe optimism is a personality trait we’re born with. And other factors, like socioeconomic status and cultural background, may have a role in our ability to think positively. Several studies have found a relationship between pessimism and lower economic status — though it’s unclear whether low socioeconomic status causes people to be more pessimistic or the other way around Socioeconomic disparities in optimism and pessimism. Robb, K.A., Simon, A.E., Wardle, J. Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, UK. The International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 2009;16(4):331-8. Socioeconomic status in childhood and adulthood: associations with dispositional optimism and pessimism over a 21-year follow-up. Heinonen, K. R., Räikkönen K, Scheier, M.F., et al. Department of Psychology, University of Helsinki, Finland. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2006 Aug;74(4):1111-26.. Cultural differences may also come into play — studies suggest Western cultures tend to anticipate more positive events than Eastern cultures do. Some psychologists suggest that’s because Westerners focus more on self-enhancement and see themselves more positively than Easterners Cultural variations on optimistic and pessimistic bias for self versus a sibling: is there evidence for self-enhancement in the west and for self-criticism in the east when the referent group is specified? Chang, E.C., Asakawa, K. Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003 Mar;84(3):569-81..
And before becoming Mr. or Mrs. “everything is awesome and wonderful,” know that being too optimistic can have its downside. Expecting the best in every situation may lead to failed expectations The costs of optimism and the benefits of pessimism. Sweeny, K., Shepperd, J.A. Department of Psychology,University of California-Riverside, Riverside, CA. Emotion, 2010 Oct;10(5):750-3.. Some experts argue defensive pessimism — the ’ol “hope for the best prepare for the worst” — helps people respond to certain threats and may even reduce anxiety A two-factor model of defensive pessimism and its relations with achievement motives. Lim, L. Nanyang Technological University. Journal of Psychology, 2009 May;143(3):318-36..
Here are some quick tips on how to start seeing the glass half-full:
- Find the good. Even in less-than-great situations, there’s a way to find something positive. It may be hard to see at first, but try looking closer! (I may be completely lost, but the view from here sure is pretty.)
- Write it down. At the end of the day, write down a few good things that happened, like finishing a big report at work or getting an e-mail from an old friend. The habit makes it easier to appreciate the positive parts of life.
- Speak with success. Sometimes it’s not the specific situation that determines a good or bad mood, but how we talk about it. (The exam may have been super hard, but telling friends we tried our best may cheer us up.)
- Forget the green-eyed monster. It’s easy to compare ourselves to others, becoming envious of what we don’t have. Instead, try to appreciate the good qualities and remember what we’re grateful for.
- Take control: Science has shown people feel more optimistic about situations they can control Is optimistic bias influenced by control or delay? Kos, J.M., Clarke, V.A. School of Psychology, Faculty of Health and Behavioral Sciences, Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria Australia. Health Education Research, 2001 Oct;16(5):533-40.. So take a seat behind the driver’s wheel and remember choices like working out more and eating healthfully are (almost always) yours!
- Smile! Grin at this: In one study, participants who held a pen in their mouth (causing them to use their smiling muscles) perceived cartoons to be funnier than those without the pen Duchenne smile, emotional experience, and autonomic reactivity: a test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Soussignan, R. Laboratoire Vulnérabilité, Adaptation et Psychopathologie, CNRS UMR 7593, Hôpital de la Salpêtrière, Paris, France. Emotion, 2002 Mar;2(1):52-74.. So not only are smiles contagious, they may actually make situations seem better Why are smiles contagious? An fMRI study of the interaction between perception of facial affect and facial movements. Wild,B., Erb, M., Eyb., M., et al Department of Neuroradiology, University of Tübingen, Germany. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 2003 May 1;123(1):17-36.!
- Stay balanced. Life isn’t all good, all the time, so don’t worry if those positive thoughts don’t flow freely. Staying realistic is also important to help manage anxiety and boost productivity.
What's your favorite tip for staying optimistic? Tell us in the comments below!