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Are Optimists Healthier?

I've heard that optimists are healthier than pessimists. Is that true?
Answer (Published 2/19/2004)

Originally published 01/03/2002.

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Research on this subject is fascinating and does suggest that positive thinking can enhance health. Pessimism has been linked to a higher risk of dying before age 65, while positive emotions – such as optimism – are associated with lowered production of the stress hormone cortisol, better immune function, and reduced risk of chronic diseases. In fact, the journal Psychosomatic Medicine published results of a study showing that optimistic men had less than half the risk of heart disease than pessimistic men.

Earlier studies have found that among patients recovering from coronary artery bypass graft surgery, those with a positive outlook recovered faster and were less likely to be rehospitalized for postsurgical complications or other heart problems. In these studies, the researchers separated out optimism from other factors that could have affected the outcomes – depression, for example.

This study is one of the first to look at whether optimism lowers the risk of heart disease rather than the outcome of treatment. A total of 1,306 men were enrolled in the study. Their average age was 60 and they were followed for 10 years. (Because the study included only Caucasian men, the results can’t be generalized to women or non-Caucasian men.)

The researchers explain that pessimists blame themselves when bad things happen. They see good events as transitory and negative ones as lasting. Because they expect bad things to happen, they feel hopeless about changing the future. Optimists are much more likely to explain bad events as due to some temporary external cause and tend to have a generally positive view of life and their ability to affect their futures.

Because optimists "actively engage in planning and problem solving," the researchers suggested that they may experience less stress than pessimists or may have more resources to deal with stress. In this study, men with less education were more likely to be pessimistic, suggesting that factors like poverty, unemployment or work stress may increase the likelihood of pessimism and thereby the risk of heart disease.

All of this bodes well for optimists. But there’s good news for pessimists, too. Earlier research has shown that optimism is at least partially learned. How? Find out by reading a classic book on the subject, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind & Your Life (Pocket Books, 1998), by famed psychologist Martin Seligman, PhD.

Here’s what else I recommend for pessimists:

  • Take care of yourself by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting adequate sleep.
  • Express your emotional reactions honestly so you can effectively deal with what’s bothering you.
  • Confide in someone: your mate, a good friend, or a trusted relative.
  • Make a resolution to view the cup as half full instead of half empty.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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