Mobe | Want to be healthier? Be positive!

Want to be healthier? Be positive!

Why it pays to be optimistic

Ever wondered whether it’s better to see the glass as half empty or half full? There’s a growing body of research that has your answer: For your health, for achievement, for living well, it would seem that “half full” is the way to go.

It’s hard to ignore the long list of benefits that come with an optimistic frame of mind. A starter list:

  • Optimism has been linked to a greater likelihood of completing college.
  • One group of first-semester law school students with more optimism earned higher salaries a decade later.
  • A study of new life insurance agents scoring higher on an optimism scale sold 37% more insurance in their first two years of service than those scoring in the bottom half.
  • Insurance agents in the top half of that same scale also stayed in their jobs at twice the rate of those in the bottom half.
  • Optimists report having greater social support than pessimists. (Interestingly, it’s the perception of support that seems to matter more than how much actual support is received.)
  • Optimists provide more nurturing and involved parenting linked to better adjustment of their children than those with more pessimistic outlooks.

A glass half-full spills over to your health

Does it surprise you that a positive framework isn’t just about a feel-good attitude? It’s also about physical and mental health.

A major study of cardiovascular disease looked at data from the Women’s Health Initiative, one of the largest multi-faceted preventive health studies of its kind. The focus was on quality of life, chronic disease and survival in more than 95,000 women across an 8-year period.

The effect of mindset was powerful: Women with an optimistic view were less likely than pessimists to develop coronary heart disease. And, they had lower total mortality from all causes across the 8 years of study.

Other studies have found that optimism may protect against stroke and make you less likely to be re-hospitalized after bypass surgery.

More research is needed to clarify the link between optimism and good health—and it’s likely that more than one mechanism is at work. But there are intriguing biological benefits to a sunny attitude:

A 2008 study of 2,873 healthy men and women found that a positive outlook on life was linked to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And in women, it was associated with lower levels of two markers of inflammation that predict the risk of heart attack and stroke.

What about pain? Turns out that optimism may help you better inhibit pain by mentally disengaging from it.

Good news: Pessimists can learn a more optimistic frame of mind.

Wishing you were a little more positive? There’s no need to concoct mindless fantasies or repeat empty affirmations (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough”…and so on).

You can move in the right direction by changing the stories you tell yourself when bad things happen. Psychologists call this our “explanatory style,” and it can make all the difference.

The founder of the modern positive psychology himself, Martin Seligman, compares the pessimistic and optimistic explanatory styles in his online course, Foundations of Positive Psychology. (You can take the whole series of positive psychology courses from the University of Pennsylvania on Coursera – highly recommended by the Guides here at MOBE.)

When bad things happen, you can flip the messages you send yourself from one side to the other. And this doesn’t mean making up pie-in-the-sky stories or being dishonest with yourself. Over time, you’ll learn there’s almost always more than one explanation for anything negative that comes your way.

Personal vs. Not personal

A colleague criticizes your product idea in front of a team during a weekly meeting.

It’s not about me: She may need to do this to build herself up.

Uncontrollable vs. Controllable

Your blood pressure is up from your last doctor visit.

I can add more fruits and veggies to my day.

Permanent vs. Temporary

You walk into the gym and see lots of fit, active bodies.

After a few sessions with a trainer, I’ll feel more confident.

Remember: Realism has its place

In the end, a position somewhere between pessimism and optimism is probably the best place to land. (The glass, after all, is only half full!)

Seligman cautions us that there are times not to use the skill of optimism. The key is to ask yourself “What is the cost of failure in this situation?” If the cost is very high, optimism is the wrong strategy.

Think about three hypothetical situations:

  • A pilot in the cockpit needs to decide whether to de-ice the plane one more time.
  • A party-goer needs to choose whether to drive home after drinking.
  • A gambler thinks about getting in on one more round of high-stakes poker.

In all three examples the costs of failure are very high: death, a car accident or the loss of financial resources. Being a realist in each of these situations is a matter of life, death and financial security.

But it is worth flipping the pessimism script whenever a typical day throws up barriers to feeling optimistic.

Imagine…

  • You’re an inside sales rep deciding whether to try for one more sale before calling it a day. You lose only your time if you fail.
  • You’re a shy person anxious about an important conversation. You suffer a small amount of discomfort if it doesn’t go well.
  • You’re a guy who’s just found out his blood pressure and you want to join your local gym. You’re only out the monthly fee if your motivation slips.

No matter how painful, embarrassing or disappointing a bad outcome is in any of these scenarios, the actual cost of failure is pretty low. And that’s where optimism is a powerful tool.

Optimism keeps you moving forward. It can help you meet your goals. And, ultimately, it may help you live a longer, more fulfilling life.

You might also like


7 ways to reframe your mindset

Next time anger, disappointment, fear, or anxiety threaten your mood, take a pause. Then, take a few minutes to try one of these research-based methods for retraining your mind to stress less.

Why sticking with a med can be easier said than done, and may not be the right thing

To boost medication adherence, there are plenty of apps and products geared toward helping you remember to take your meds—from simple “days of the week” pill boxes to digital reminders, these prompts help those who struggle with medication schedules, especially if multiple meds are involved. But what if memory and organization aren’t the real issues for you? Although recalling medication instructions is an important part of adherence, that’s not the only reason people might feel challenged when sticking to a medication. Here are some other possibilities that you might experience...

Patient’s guide to a more effective doctor visit

Most patients feel that time crunch that comes with doctor visits—as soon as the physician walks through the exam room door, the imaginary stopwatch begins. This highlights the need to be as efficient as possible in addressing your needs, getting your questions answered, and communicating important health info like medication side effects or making sure your medications are still working or needed. Here are five strategies for making your next visit more effective...

6 science-backed ways to start a healthier habit

Behavior scientists have made exciting discoveries in recent decades about how we can help ourselves build the habits we desire. It isn’t “one-size-fits-all,” and different techniques work for different challenges. But research supports that habit change resides inside your mind. And that experimenting with techniques like these are where to begin...

Why your stress may have an upside

Just imagining a stressful event or situation may make your heart beat faster, your palms sweat and your mind kick into high-alert mode. But what if that stress response isn’t always bad? What if it can actually be beneficial? And what if there is actually a difference between a good stressor and bad stressor? Researchers are finding that there is more to the story than you might expect from all the bad press about stress.

The science of pharmaceutical research

Medicine isn’t perfect. For every breakthrough that cures a disease (or makes it easier to live with one) there are many more treatments that only help a little. And there are many more that may have no effect or that may actually cause a particular person more harm than good. So, it’s important to approach any decision that affects your health, or the health of someone you love, with eyes wide open.

Schedule an appointment