A Healthy Dose of Optimism
by Elissa Sonnenberg, MSEd
Take a close look at that glass of water. Half empty? Half full? What you see could make a difference, not only in your daily health, but in how long you live. One study highlighted how optimism or pessimism may affect, or even predict, your recovery from a major life event. Those who had a more positive outlook bounced back faster than those who did not.
The Power of Optimism TOP
Being optimistic is thought to prolong life because optimists tend to:
The Bright Side TOP
For decades, psychologists have studied the link between positive thinking and physical and mental health. However, it is more important to change negative thought patterns into positive ones than to worry about being optimistic.
Several studies have found that people who don't give in to negative thoughts may win more elections, get better grades, win more athletic contests, and earn higher pay.
This may be because optimism and pessimism both tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies. Pessimism makes you feel defeated and less likely to take constructive action. Optimism makes you more likely to act.
Optimist vs. Non-optimist TOP
Determining whether you think more optimistically or pessimistically may have to do with how you explain events in your life.
Optimists tend to see setbacks as specific, temporary, and changeable. Because of this, they are motivated to take action. Non-optimists tend to look at setbacks as general, permanent, and hopeless—symptoms of widespread failure that cannot be changed or managed.
For example, an optimist who did not follow through on an exercise routine for a week might say, "I had a lot going on this week. I did not plan my time too well. I will have to do better next week." A pessimist in the same situation might say, "I have no self-discipline. I obviously will not be able to meet my goals. Exercise just is not for me."
A Good Mood TOP
Mood can also influence whether optimistic or pessimistic thoughts dominate your brain by changing how you interpret situations. Most people are a blend of optimism and pessimism, depending on the situation.
Optimistic people tend to lift their moods using:
Optimism: Not Always the Answer TOP
Not everyone agrees that the solution to good health lies in being optimistic. There is more to it than just that. For example, excessive optimism can be harmful to one's health as is evident among teenagers, who take many risks. It can be damaging to think optimistically when it comes to difficult health choices like quitting smoking, using condoms, or wearing seatbelts.
A better strategy may be to be a bit pessimistic when making decisions that involve risk and the cost of failure is high, and to be a bit optimistic when achievement is your goal, which may boost your morale.
Negative to Positive Thinking TOP
Optimism, like other interpersonal skills, can be learned. One technique is to write about setbacks and practice arguing with your less optimistic thoughts until a more realistic vision of what has happened and what is likely to happen in the future.
It takes focus to change negative thoughts into positive ones. But, with a little practice, we can all incorporate a healthy dose of optimism into our lives.
American Counseling Association
University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center
Canadian Psychological Association
Can optimism make a difference in your life? University of Rochester Medical Center website. Available at:
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Accessed April 12, 2017.
Kivimaki M, Vahtera J, et al. Optimism and pessimism as predictors of change in health after death or onset of severe illness in family. Health Psychol. 2005;24(4):413-421.
Segerstrom S, Taylor S, et al. Optimism is associated with mood, coping and immune change in response to stress. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1998;74(6):1646-1655.
Last reviewed April 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 4/29/2015
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