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July 05, 2022

A negative outlook on life may be affecting your health – being optimistic could help

While not everything is under our control, learning how to manage negative feelings could help you live longer, experts say

Wellness Optimism
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Both genetics and our relationships in our early childhood help shape whether we are optimistic or pessimistic by nature. But researchers say that even if it doesn't come naturally, you can learn to approach life in a more optimistic way.

Looking on the bright side of things isn't always the easiest to do, but some scientists say it could help improve your overall health and may even extend your life.

A number of studies have shown that optimists generally have higher levels of well-being, better sleeping habits, less stress and stronger immune systems. Researchers have also found links between optimism and better cardiovascular health and longevity.

One of the latest studies found that women who self-identified as optimists were more likely than pessimists to live into their 90s. The average life span for women in developed countries is about 83 years old. The study involved 160,00 women, ages 50-79, who were followed for 26 years. 

The association between optimism and extended longevity stayed strong even after adjusting for other predictors of a long life, including education level, economic status, ethnicity and chronic health conditions.

The study only included women, but other studies have also found that both men and women live longer the more optimistic they are. One study found that optimistic people lived between 11% and 15% longer than those who were less optimistic.

The science behind optimism

While it isn't completely clear how optimism leads to better health, studies have shown that people who are optimistic tend to eat healthier, stay physically active and practice other healthy behaviors, such as not smoking and limiting alcohol consumption – all of which are known to reduce the risk of heart attacks, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

This is only a piece of the puzzle though. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that lifestyle only accounts for about 24% of why optimistic people live longer.

The way people manage stress could also be a factor, researchers noted. Optimists use adaptive coping strategies in challenging situations. This means addressing a problem head-on, getting support from social networks and practicing gratitude for the good things in life. Optimists are also more likely to recognize unhealthy emotional reactions and to change them.

Chronic stress can lead to an overactivation of the fight or flight response, which is a natural biological response to stress. A constant cascade of stress hormones has been shown to increase the risk of high blood pressure, clogged arteries and can lead to changes in the brain that are associated with anxiety, depression and addiction. There has also been some preliminary research on the connection between chronic stress and obesity.

Can optimism be learned?

Both genetics and relationships in early childhood help shape whether people are optimistic or pessimistic by nature. But researchers say that even if it doesn't come naturally, people can learn to approach life in a more optimistic way.

Some techniques shown to be effective include visualizing and writing about a future version of yourself who has accomplished all your goals, and then taking realistic steps to achieve them.

However, psychologists emphasize that these goals need to be positive and reasonable, otherwise people are just setting themselves up for failure. It's important to keep in mind the factors that can be controlled and those that can't.

Staying educated on the best ways to care for your health is another marker of optimism that can be learned. Studies have shown that optimists know what it takes to maintain good health and are more likely to track their health closely.

Unfortunately, not everything is under people's control. Sometimes, people are faced with unexpected illness, financial setbacks or relationship challenges. In these situations, how people respond matters most, psychologists say.

Instead of letting negative emotions overwhelm you, look for ways to manage and control your feelings. Be kind to yourself and give yourself space to destress – just do it in positive ways, such as taking a walk or enjoying a long bath, and not destructive coping mechanisms, such as getting drunk or binging on junk food.

When it is easier to breath again, look for ways you can manage the situation. For instance, if you are diagnosed with a serious chronic condition, make sure you are up-to-date on the latest research and treatment options and seek out the best advice from multiple experts on how best to manage your condition.

It's OK to feel sadness when bad things happen, just don't let it overwhelm you. Try to focus on all the good things in your life instead. Even the smallest improvements in tough times should be celebrated.

Remember that practicing a positive outlook on life doesn't mean ignoring your shortcomings, which may be contributing to your problems. Recognize them and find ways to limit them. For instance, if your social media use is distracting you from staying up on your household responsibilities, you need to cut back the time you spend on your favorite apps. Staying disciplined in pursuit of your goals will make it easier for you to stay on track.

The bottom line is that there will always be good and bad days. No matter what happens though, be your own cheerleader. Each day, take a moment to recognize the things you did well, and ask yourself what can you learn from things that did not go as planned. Tomorrow is another day to go after your goals.

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