No matter how challenging life feels sometimes—especially if you’re going through it with a chronic condition--you really can adjust your mindset and be more optimistic. Optimism is generally considered a "modifiable trait" and now there's another reason to get with that program and maybe get healthier in the process.
An analysis of multiple research studies published in JAMA Network Open says optimism is associated with a 35 percent lower risk of cardiovascular events like stroke or heart attack, and that pessimism is associated with a higher risk. Optimism is also associated with a 14 percent overall lower risk of death due to all causes, called all-cause mortality.
The research team controlled for, or took into consideration, factors including depression, education level attained, and level of exercise amongst the study’s 229,000 participants around the world. They also noted that optimism and pessimism can actually be easily measured.
Make That Change
The lead study author was cardiologist Alan Rozanski, M.D. of Mount Sinai St. Luke's Hospital in New York City. His team's work found that embracing more optimism and ditching that pessimistic attitude could be important for preventive health—in other words, it's up to us to make a change in how we see things, and we might even live longer.
"Optimism has long been promulgated as a positive attribute for living," the authors wrote. In fact, they noted that previous research has shown optimism may encourage people to do more of the right things, like eat a healthier diet and sustain physical exercise over time, both known to help prevent disease. They also cited an association of optimism with more effective goal setting, problem solving and coping skills. Pessimism, on the other hand, has been associated with inflammation, increased blood pressure, and other negative health issues.
In an invited commentary on the study in the same publication, Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist Jeff C. Huffman, M.D., said that these study results are on par with findings from other medical literature that agrees that optimism is associated with heart and overall health outcomes.
The case for optimism and better health is mounting up. This new study comes on the heels of an August 2019 study from the National Academy of Sciences that paired optimism with longer life—achieving age 85 or older. That work suggested that optimistic people could regulate emotions and behavior and rebound from stress and difficulties better than other people.
Earlier this year, another study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine corroborated that optimism appears strongly associated with greater likelihood of healthy aging.
How You Can Be More Optimistic
You might be thinking, "This all sounds great, but being more optimistic feels really hard for me right now." Start with thinking that yes, you can, make this mental adjustment. The University of Rochester Medical Center suggests you:
- Think positive, not just about you, but about people around you. It is easy to see the negative, but you don't have to. It just takes a little effort.
- Be accepting of yourself and don't compare. You are you and you are special. Remember that no one is perfect.
- Find that silver lining in difficult situations, and remember they happen to everyone.
- When you're up against a wall, and the challenge feels bigger than you, don't automatically think you won't prevail. Look toward a positive result.
- Re-evaluate why you're here and what you want to do with your life.
- Take better care of yourself, and like the new study says, having more optimism also means you'll likely be more open to eating better and exercising.
- Keep learning to keep your mind sharp and stay engaged. It's never too late to pick up a new skill or polish ones you already have. Moving forward just feels better because you're making progress.
Although there's no official "Center for Optimism"—yet—there are resources to help you train your brain so you can live a more satisfied life. Check out the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Although psychologists define optimism and happiness as two different traits, they are related. You might also enjoy The Happiness Lab podcast from Yale professor and psychologist Laurie Santos, Ph.D. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also used to help bolster optimism, and you can explore that with a mental health professional.