The impressive impact of optimism on health and longevity
A cheerful disposition can help you get through the tough patches that cloud every life, but do people who see the glass half-full also enjoy better health than gloomy types who see it half-empty?
According to a series of studies from the U.S. and Europe, the answer is yes. Optimism helps people cope with disease and recover from surgery. Even more impressive is the impact of a positive outlook on overall health and longevity.
Research tells us that an optimistic outlook early in life can predict better health and a lower rate of death during follow-up periods of 15 to 40 years.
To investigate optimism, scientists first needed to develop reliable ways to measure the trait. Two systems are in widespread use; one measures dispositional optimism, the other explanatory style.
Dispositional optimism depends on positive expectations for one's future. These are not confined to one or two aspects of life, but are generalized expectations for a good outcome in several areas. Many researchers use the 12-item Life Orientation Test to measure dispositional optimism.
Explanatory style is based on how a person explains good or bad news. The pessimist assumes blame for bad news ("It's me"), assumes the situation is stable ("It will last forever"), and has a global impact ("It will affect everything I do").
The optimist, on the other hand, does not assume blame for negative events. Instead, he tends to give himself credit for good news, assume good things will last, and be confident that positive developments will spill over into many areas of his life. Researchers often use either the Attributional Style Questionnaire or the Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations method to evaluate optimism based on explanatory style.
Optimism and cardiac patients
In some studies, researchers have concentrated on the link between optimism and specific medical conditions. And now scientists tell us that optimism may help the heart itself.
In one study, doctors evaluated 309 middle-aged patients who were scheduled to undergo coronary artery bypass surgery. In addition to a complete pre-operative physical exam, each patient underwent a psychological evaluation designed to measure optimism, depression, neuroticism, and self-esteem.
The researchers tracked all the patients for six months after surgery. When they analyzed the data, they found that optimists were only half as likely as pessimists to require re-hospitalization. In a similar study of 298 angioplasty patients, optimism was also protective; over a six-month period, pessimists were three times more likely than optimists to have heart attacks or require repeat angioplasties or bypass operations.
Optimism and blood pressure
A sunny outlook may help people recover after a cardiac procedure, but can it also reduce the risk of developing one of the major risks for cardiovascular disease — hypertension?
Research conducted in Finland suggests it can. Scientists evaluated 616 middle-aged men who had normal blood pressures when the study began. Each volunteer's mental outlook was checked with questions about his expectations for the future, and each was evaluated for cardiovascular risk factors such as smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, alcohol abuse, and a family history of hypertension. Over a four-year period, highly pessimistic men were three times more likely to develop hypertension than cheerier souls, even after other risk factors were taken into account.
An American study of 2,564 men and women who were 65 and older also found that optimism is good for blood pressure. Researchers used a four-item positive-emotion summary scale to evaluate each participant during a home visit.
They also measured blood pressure, height, and weight and collected information about age, marital status, alcohol use, diabetes, and medication. Even after taking these other factors into account, people with positive emotions had lower blood pressures than those with a negative outlook. On average, the people with the most positive emotions had the lowest blood pressures.
Emotions and infections
A 2006 study explored the link between emotions and viral infections of the respiratory tract. Scientists evaluated the personality style of 193 healthy volunteers, then gave each a common respiratory virus. Subjects who displayed a positive personality style were less likely to develop viral symptoms than their less positive peers.
Optimism and heart disease
High blood pressure is an important cause of coronary artery disease. If optimism can reduce the risk of hypertension, can it also protect against developing coronary artery disease itself? To find out, scientists from Harvard and Boston University evaluated 1,306 men with an average age of 61. Each volunteer was evaluated for an optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style as well as for blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity, smoking, alcohol use, and family history of heart disease.
None of the men had been diagnosed with coronary artery disease when the study began. Over the next 10 years, the most pessimistic men were more than twice as likely to develop heart disease than the most optimistic men, even after taking other risk factors into account.
Optimism and overall health
Optimism appears to protect the heart and circulation — and it's heartening to learn that it can have similar benefits for overall health.
Harvard health publishing