If your glass is half empty, you might want to think about filling it up because it turns out that positive people are not just happier—they’re healthier, too.
Of course, life isn’t always roses and rainbows, but people who maintain a cheerful outlook—even in the face of challenges—have a clear health advantage. At least, that’s what the science shows.
Optimism is a mental attitude or worldview that leans toward the positive. Optimists have a tendency to expect the best possible outcomes or dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation. These are the people who make lemonade out of lemons, so to speak. They see the glass as half full rather than half empty. In fact, optimists usually see others in the best possible light.
Benefits of Optimism
A variety of studies have shown that optimism has an impact on physiological health.
- Lower blood pressure: People with a more positive outlook have lower blood pressure. Highly pessimistic people are up to three times as likely to develop hypertension compared to optimistic people.[i]
- Reduced risk of heart disease: Optimists have a lower risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular events.[ii]
- Improved healing: Hospitalized heart disease patients who were even mildly optimistic about their recovery were more likely to be alive after 15 years than those with lower expectations.[iii]
- Lower cholesterol: Optimistic people tend to have lower levels of “bad” cholesterol and higher levels of “good” cholesterol.[iv]
- Improved immunity: Optimists tend to have a greater immune response than their pessimistic counterparts.[v]
- Better survival: Optimists are 55 percent less likely to die from any cause compared to their pessimistic counterparts.[vi]
How Optimism Works
The relationship between optimism and health is not black and white. Of course, there is no guarantee that an optimistic person will enjoy good health, nor is a healthy person guaranteed to be an optimist. But researchers continue to find a relationship between a positive outlook and improved health.
The mechanism by which optimism impacts health is unclear. The relationship could be the result of behavior—perhaps optimists lead healthier lifestyles, get better medical care, and build stronger social networks. Some studies have indicated that optimists are more likely to exercise, less likely to smoke, and more likely to follow medical advice than their pessimistic counterparts.
There could be biological or genetic factors at play as well. Optimists tend to be good at managing stress. In fact, one study found that people with a positive outlook on life have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.[vii]Because stress is often linked with illness, this might be one of the keys to the relationship between optimism and health.
How to Become More Optimistic
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It sounds great—who doesn’t want to be more positive? But sometimes that is easier said than done. Researchers aren’t sure whether personality is hardwired toward optimism or pessimism. That said it is possible to teach yourself to become more positive. It takes discipline and practice.
If you want to shift from glass half empty to glass half full:
- Choose one small area: Don’t try to reinvent your whole personality. Instead, find one area where you’d like to become more positive and practice shifting your thinking. By focusing on one area, you’ll train yourself to notice when your glass is half empty.
- Self-talk: Positive self-talk takes practice, but can change our whole mindset. Notice the things you “say” to yourself or think about yourself. See if you can swap out the negative for positive affirmations.
- Laugh: It’s true that laughter is the best medicine. It can actually help us shift toward more positive thinking.
As with anything, practice is key. Optimism isn’t a magic bullet, but a positive mindset—balanced with a healthy, realistic outlook—can be one component of a healthy life. Of course, healthy lifestyle choices are also important, so be sure to make exercise, nutrition, and sleep a part of your prescription for overall health.
[i]Everson SA, Kaplan GA, Goldberg DE, et al. Hypertension Incidence Is Predicted by High Levels of Hopelessness in Finnish Men. Hypertension. 2000; 35: 561-567.
[ii]Boehm JK, Kubzansky LD. The heart’s content: the association between positive psychological well-being and cardiovascular health. Psychological Bulletin. 2012; 138(4):655-691.
[iii]Barefoot JC, Brummett BH, Williams RB, et al. Recovery expectations and long-term prognosis of patients with coronary heart disease. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2011; 171(10):929-935.
[iv]Boehm JK, Williams DR, Rimm EB, et al. Relation Between Optimism and Lipids in Midlife. The American Journal of Cardiology. 2013; 111(10): 1425-1431.
[v]Segerstrom SC, Sephton SE. Optimistic expectancies and cell-mediated immunity: the role of positive affect. Psychological Science. 2010; 21(3):448-455.
[vi]Giltay EJ, GEleijnse JM, Zitman FG, et al. Dispositional optimism and all-cause and cardiovascular mortality in a prospective cohort of elderly dutch men and women. The Archives of General Psychiatry. 2004 Nov;61(11):1126-1135.
[vii]Jobin J, Wrosch C, Scheier MF. Associations Between Dispositional Optimism and Diurnal Cortisol in a Community Sample: When Stress Is Perceived as Higher Than Normal.. Health Psychology, 2013; DOI: 10.1037/a0032736