How Optimism Improves Your Health

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Optimism is linked to a longer lifespan and a reduction in the risk of chronic disease.

Are you more of a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full kind of person? Turns out, being optimistic affects more than just your mood. As you'll soon see, research has shown that a positive outlook can improve the outcomes of several health conditions and extend lifespan.

Although there is a genetic component to the trait, given that about 25% of optimism is heritable, a positive disposition can definitely be learned. In this article, we'll look into the research on how optimism can help various health conditions, and how you can turn yourself into a more positive person if you have a tendency to lean towards pessimism.

Let's begin by understanding the basic relationship between optimism and health.

Optimism and Health: The Basics

Optimism is a component of positive psychology, which encompasses a variety of techniques that promote the identification and development of positive emotions and experiences, rather than focusing or dwelling on negative ones. Optimists generally believe that the outcome of a certain event will turn out favorably; this outlook tends to lead to a reduced risk of feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed.

Although optimism seems to be just a matter of psychology, it actually leads to an impact on our biology as well. There are many factors that play a role in how optimism can improve our health. First, chronic stress and anxiety can play a role in the development of high blood pressure and heart disease. Being optimistic is linked to reduced stress and anxiety, which can, in turn, reduce the risk of these diseases.

Second, it's been proposed that optimistic people don't develop chronic diseases because they tend to live healthier lives in general. They eat better, they exercise, they don't smoke, they are more social, and this indirectly links optimism with health. This is likely a bi-directional relationship, as having healthier habits can also promote optimism. Along the same lines, optimistic people may be more likely to take action sooner when they receive a disease diagnosis or warning, thus leading to reductions in overall disease progression or development.

Thirdly, optimism can influence health by directly impacting our biological pathways, such as reducing heart rate variability, blood pressure, blood lipids, and inflammatory markers related to metabolic dysfunction.

Top Three Ways Optimism Can Improve Health

1. Cardiovascular Health Outcomes

Optimism can reduce the risk of developing or dying from cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Both cardiovascular disease (CVD) and its risk factors have been linked to having a positive outlook on life. One reason for this is due to the association between serum lipid levels and cholesterol. Serum lipid levels are a prominent factor involved in developing CVD. Several studies have found links between optimism and a reduction in LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, plus increases in HDL cholesterol, or our “good” cholesterol.

A review of 29 studies found that optimism was linked to several improvements in cardiovascular health outcomes, including reductions in rehospitalizations after heart attacks or heart surgeries, and a reduction in cardiovascular-related mortality in the elderly population.

In a large meta-analysis of almost 230,000 individuals, optimism was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular events, such as coronary heart disease, as well as all-cause mortality, while being pessimistic increased the risk of cardiovascular events.

A study published in the Journal of Aging Research looked at a sample of older men and women over a 12-year period. In both sexes. A higher score on an optimism scale was linked to a reduction in mortality from coronary heart disease (CHD). Optimistic participants did tend to have healthier habits, like exercising, not smoking, and not consuming too much alcohol. However, the associations between CHD mortality and optimism still remained even after controlling for these variables.

2. Risk of Stroke and Recovery From Stroke

Although stroke could be included with other cardiovascular diseases, there are several studies that looked at optimism and stroke separately from heart disease.

A large, prospective cohort study examined the risk of having a stroke by assessing degrees of pessimism in a group of people over the course of seven years. Even after adjusting for many confounding variables, like depression, socioeconomic status and cardiovascular risk factors, being pessimistic was significantly associated with having a stroke during that seven-year period. People in the lowest quartile of pessimism had the lowest risk of having a stroke.

Not only has optimism been shown to improve the risk of having a stroke, but has also been linked to improvements in outcomes in stroke survivors. In recent research, stroke survivors who scored higher in optimism on the revised Life Orientation Test (LOT-R) showed a reduction in inflammation, stroke severity, and physical disability at three months after the stroke. For each unit increase in optimism on the LOT-R, there was a 27% decline in a patient's stroke severity score.

After a stroke, many people tend towards depression or reduced quality of life due to feeling a sense of loss of their previous lifestyle. However, remaining positive even after a stroke has been linked to improvements in well-being and independence in activities of daily living. The positive emotions associated with optimism may create a ripple effect and further drive more hopeful feelings, like increasing a sense of mastery and coping mechanisms.

3. Healthy Aging and Longevity

Healthy aging can mean many things, such as improved longevity, reductions in cognitive decline, or reduced risk of chronic disease. As it's common for older adults to experience comorbidities (having more than one disease), increasing healthspan versus lifespan should be a primary focus for successful aging. Higher optimism tends to result in less cognitive decline, a reduction in the need for being placed in a care facility, and a decreased fall risk. And those centenarians you've heard about, those who live healthfully past age 100? In general, they tend to have personality traits that are more optimistic and easygoing.

How to Practice Optimism

If you're a serial pessimist, it may take some time to reframe your thoughts to become more positive and sunny. However, learning to be optimistic is definitely possible, and as we've seen, your overall health and longevity depend on it!

Choosing to be optimistic rather than pessimistic can improve mood and overall health

Here are some tips to become more optimistic in your day-to-day life include:

  • Retrain your brain by challenging yourself to look on the bright side of things, as cliché as that sounds. No matter how bad the scenario is or appears to be, a conscious shift in viewpoint can lead to positive thoughts becoming more automatic with time.
  • Create a hopeful mantra or do meditation exercises that focus on optimism, positivity, or happiness.
  • Create a positive environment: Surround yourself with optimistic people, unfollow accounts on social media who make you feel negative, or replace news-watching with reading an uplifting book or listening to music you love.
  • Make a gratitude list daily. While you can just recite it in your head, writing down what you are grateful for can help to further solidify those positive feelings.
  • Practice the healthy habits that may have a bidirectional relationship with optimism, like getting out in nature, exercising, eating healthy, having a positive social circle, and getting enough sleep.

Your Takeaway

  • Having an optimistic outlook on life can improve more than just your mood, as optimism is linked to a reduction in the risk of several chronic diseases.
  • Most of the research has been done with cardiovascular disease, and results show that the most optimistic people tend to have reductions in heart disease, stroke, and mortality from these diseases.
  • Other areas in which optimism has been shown to be helpful is with healthy aging, reductions in cognitive decline, improved mental health and quality of life after strokes, and increases in longevity.

Show references

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Avvenuti G, Baiardini I, Giardini A. Optimism's Explicative Role for Chronic Diseases. Frontiers in Psychology. 2016;7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00295.

Boehm JK, Williams DR, Rimm EB, Ryff C, Kubzansky LD. Relation between optimism and lipids in midlife. Am J Cardiol. 2013;111(10):1425–1431. doi:10.1016/j.amjcard.2013.01.292

Kim ES, Hagan KA, Grodstein F, DeMeo DL, De Vivo I, Kubzansky LD. Optimism and Cause-Specific Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study. Am J Epidemiol. 2017;185(1):21–29. doi:10.1093/aje/kww182

Kubzansky LD, Huffman JC, Boehm JK, et al. Positive Psychological Well-Being and Cardiovascular Disease: JACC Health Promotion Series. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2018;72(12):1382–1396. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2018.07.042

Lai Y, Morales-Scheihing D, Blixt FW, Munshi Y, Bui BV, McCullough LD. Optimism Reduces Stroke Severity and Inflammation. Stroke. 12 Feb 2020.

Nabi H, Koskenvuo M, Singh-Manoux A, et al. Low pessimism protects against stroke: the Health and Social Support (HeSSup) prospective cohort study. Stroke. 2010;41(1):187–190. doi:10.1161/STROKEAHA.109.565440

Rozanski A, Bavishi C, Kubzansky LD, Cohen R. Association of Optimism With Cardiovascular Events and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(9):e1912200.doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.12200

Yoo J, Miyamoto Y, Rigotti A, Ryff CD. Linking Positive Affect to Blood Lipids: A Cultural Perspective. Psychol Sci. 2017;28(10):1468–1477. doi:10.1177/0956797617713309

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