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Health and Optimism

Optimism is a health asset and a potential target for public health interventions"
Professor Laura Kubzansky
Harvard’s Lee Kum Kee Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences

If optimistic, you will feel healthier.  An optimistic spirit can bring significant benefits, including happiness, joy, active longevity, better health including lower risks of cardiovascular disease, better sleep, greater resilience, stronger relationships and increased self-mastery. 

A recent OECD Study on Social and Emotional Skills in schools found, “Emotional stability skills are found to be the most predictive of mental health. Optimism has the highest relation to life satisfaction scores"

Optimism may help you live longer.  As Dr Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution said, “The link between optimism and longevity is strong.”

Research by several leading American universities and centers, have established a very strong link between optimism and longevity. 

 Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), National Center for PTSD at VA Boston Healthcare System and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, have found that individuals with greater optimism are more likely to live longer and to achieve “exceptional longevity,” that is, living to age 85 or older.  

So too The American Heart Association's 2021 Scientific Statement shows "Optimism is characterized by having a sense of hopefulness and confidence that things will work out well in the future and anticipating the best possible outcomes. Multiple studies have found that optimism is associated with healthier behaviors such as more physical activity, not smoking, healthy diet score, better sleep quality, and higher composite cardiovascular health scores. An optimistic frame of mind has been shown to be associated with healthy aging and a lower risk of CVD, including stroke and heart failure, and a lower risk of all-cause mortality."

According to a 2022 data analysis from the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey, optimism is robustly associated with lower mortality risk among elderly Chinese. Furthermore, optimism and health behaviours were positively correlated with survival, with the positive effect of optimism on survival more significant than the positive effect of health behaviours. The researchers suggest interventions for optimism among older people would improve health in aging. Policymakers should formulate targets to promote individual health, foster psychological resources and encourage the elderly to participate in recreational and social activities, which could help them live longer in a healthier way.

Read More: "Optimists Live Longer: Optimism and Longevity"

Why are Optimists Generally Healthier?

Better Emotional Balance: It is believed that optimistic people are better able to balance their emotions more effectively and that they more easily bounce back from some of the many stresses that life offers.

Less Stress: Optimism is strongly linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular events.   A 2018 study by the American College of Cardiology attributes this in part to the fact that ”Optimists persevere by using problem-solving and planning strategies to manage stressors.”  A 2022 report from Boston University Medical School on a study of older men reported more optimistic men reported not only lower negative mood but also more positive mood (beyond simply not feeling negative).

Better Sleep: People who are optimistic tend to sleep better.

A 2019 University of Illinois study shows people who are the most optimistic tend to be better sleepers.  Again, as the lead researcher Professor Rosalba Hernandez said, "Optimists are more likely to engage in active problem-focused coping and to interpret stressful events in more positive ways, reducing worry and ruminative thoughts when they're falling asleep and throughout their sleep cycle…Dispositional optimism—the belief that positive things will occur in the future—has emerged as a psychological asset of particular salience for disease-free survival and superior health.”

A 2020 Medical University of Vienna Study concluded "Promoting dispositional optimism could represent a simple and accessible strategy to improve sleep quality and lower insomnia risk, with downstream beneficial health effects."

Lower Blood Pressure:  In 2020, A team at Harvard University’s Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published research showing optimists have a lower risk of high blood pressure and hypertension.  Most importantly, the research- lead Professor Laura Kubzansky, Harvard’s’ Lee Kum Kee Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said “Optimism is a health asset and a potential target for public health interventions."

Lower Inflammation:  Stroke survivors with high levels of optimism had lower inflammation levels, reduced stroke severity and less physical disability according to research presented at the 2020 Nursing Symposium of the American Stroke Association's International Stroke

Heart Health:  In a 2019 meta-analysis of 15 studies including 229 ,391 individuals, optimism was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular events and pessimism was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular events.  The findings suggest that a mindset of optimism is associated with lower cardiovascular risk and that promotion of optimism and reduction in pessimism may be important for preventive health.

Generally: The Resilience Project’s Founder, Hugh van Cuylenburg, says “An optimist is less likely to die from infection, cancer, heart disease, stroke and respiratory disease. Optimists are also likely to enjoy better levels of mental health. Science shows optimists are significantly more successful than pessimists in aversive events and when unforeseen circumstances get in the way of achieving important life goals.”

Professor Dianne Vella-Brodrick puts it well, “When it comes to health, positive psychology goes beyond the idea that wellness is simply the absence of illness and instead looks at the body as a complete system. Along with being disease-free – indeed, research shows that being optimistic is linked to improved heart health, – positive health is defined by less frequent and briefer ailments, greater recuperative ability and rapid wound healing. What’s more, people who experience positive emotions are more likely to live longer than people who are less happy (but not depressed)."

Professor Karen Hooker says, “We know that personality makes a difference in life outcomes, but the interesting questions are getting at how this works and under what conditions personality and outcomes, such as finding satisfaction with life or using health care services, are linked. One example is how personality affects coping with illness. We have known for some time that optimism is important for coping with and even recovering from serious illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease. High levels of optimism lead one to believe that there are things one can do to improve, and of course if you believe your actions will have positive health consequences, you are more likely to engage in positive health behaviors such as sticking to dietary guidelines, exercising, taking medications as prescribed and so forth. You are also more likely to be pleasant to be around and may, therefore, have a stronger social support system than someone who is not so optimistic.”

Additional Thoughts on Health and Optimism

Jane E Brody writing in the New York Times in January 2020

"I’m no cockeyed optimist, but I’ve long believed that how I eat and exercise, as well as how I view the world, can benefit my mental and physical well-being.

"An increasing number of recent long-term studies has linked greater optimism to a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other chronic ailments and to fostering “exceptional longevity,” a category one team of researchers used for people who live to 85 and beyond.

"Admittedly, the relationship between optimism and better health and a longer life is still only a correlation that doesn’t prove cause and effect. But there is also now biological evidence to suggest that optimism can have a direct impact on health, which should encourage both the medical profession and individuals to do more to foster optimism as a potential health benefit."

Norman Vincent Peale in The Tough Minded Optimist

"A thoughtful physician once told me, “If you want to contribute to the public health, I suggest you speak and write often on the necessity for hopefulness, optimism and expectancy. Put some real up-beat into people’s minds.” He explained how important is a happy and optimistic spirit in healing, and went so far as to say that pessimism in a patient reduces the natural healing processes by ten per cent. I asked how he could pinpoint a particular percentage figure and found him vague on this; but the idea is that when your mind is filled with optimism your natural re-creative forces are stimulated.

Another physician, in reviewing his practice of some forty years, said that many patients would not have been ill and forced to consult him if they had simply practiced optimism, faith and joy. He said, “Quite apart from medication, if I can get them to lift themselves mentally for ten minutes every day into an area of pure joy—meaning undiluted optimism, I can get them well and keep them well.” So it seems that medically, also, optimism is important."

Study on Coping strategies, optimism, and resilience factors associated with mental health outcomes among medical residents exposed to coronavirus disease in Qatar

"One of our fields of interest in this study is to shed the light on optimism factors among the medical residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, as optimism is considered one of the coping mechanisms (World Health Organization, 2009).

"A clear set of coping skills, including how to think optimistically and how to approach problems and adversities, has been shown to help the health care workers. Gaining the skill of optimism can assist in confronting stress or setback, can help to overcome failure in particular events, and strengthens self-efficacy and resilience. This will increase the health care workers’ overall sense of well-being, helping them to be more beneficial to their society (Seligman, 2004).

"In this study, it has been found that optimism score was higher in senior than in junior medical residents. This finding may be explained by the difference of number of years experience between them.

"A Swedish study among pediatric oncologists in 2009 showed that links were found between their level of optimism and experience, and their optimistic attitude was helpful for their resilience (Stenmarker et al., 2009). An Indian study among nurses performed during COVID-19 pandemic indicated that psychological preparedness, self-efficacy, resilience, and optimism were higher among the nursing faculty and administrators than the students, and it was explained by that the lack in these areas for the younger student might improve with age and work experience (Gandhi et al., 2020)."

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