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Optimism is a Key to Emotional Wellbeing 

by Victor Perton

"Don't worry, be happy" are not just the lyrics of a song my Mother enjoyed; it's sound health advice.

Boston University School of Medicine has found "A growing body of evidence supports an association between optimism and healthy ageing."

In a study of 233 older men, optimism is associated with "more favourable emotional wellbeing in later life".

The researchers believe it's through differences in stressor exposure rather than an emotional stress response.

Optimism may preserve emotional wellbeing among older adults by engaging emotion regulation strategies that occur relatively early in the emotion-generative process.

The researchers followed the men who had first completed an optimism questionnaire; 14 years later, they reported daily stressors along with positive and negative moods on eight consecutive evenings up to three times over eight years.

The researchers found more optimistic men reported lower negative moods and more positive moods.

They also reported having fewer stressors which were unrelated to their higher positive mood but explained their lower levels of negative mood.

For the study, optimism was defined either as having generalised expectations for positive outcomes or explaining causes for past events.

"Optimistic individuals tend to appraise the causes of negative events as transient, situation-specific, and external to oneself, whereby future negative occurrences are deemed less likely," the researchers say.

"Optimism is a temporally stable trait that pertains to diverse contexts."

"Mean optimism levels increase slightly from early to late adulthood."

"This study tested one possible explanation, assessing if more optimistic people handle daily stress more constructively and therefore enjoy better emotional wellbeing," said Dr Lewina Lee, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder at the VA Boston Healthcare System and assistant professor of psychiatry.

Stress "is known to have a negative impact on our health. By looking at whether optimistic people handle day-to-day stressors differently, our findings add to knowledge about how optimism may promote good health as people age," said Dr Lee.

"When people go through intervention such as identifying goals and then imagining a future where everything turns out well and that their goals have been reached, or more intensive kinds of behavioural intervention that their optimism level can be increased."

"One way to become more optimistic is to develop an awareness of how we internally react to or judge a situation," she said.

"Oftentimes, our automatic reaction involves a negative evaluation or a worst-case scenario. It will be useful to catch ourselves doing that and then try to come up with different ways of approaching the situation.

Read More: "Put it in Perspective" - An Exercise for These Times

"A more optimistic thought does not mean being Pollyanna-ish or ignoring risks, which is a common misconception about optimism. It may involve acknowledging our strengths, past examples of success, and areas over which we have control so that we can arrive at a more positive and confident outlook."

A 2019 study by the same research team found that the most optimistic men and women lived 11 to 15 per cent longer than the least optimistic people, even after controlling for confounding factors such as chronic disease, educational attainment, and health behaviours like exercise, diet, and alcohol use.

Other Commentators

Professor Andrew Steptoe, head of behavioural science and health at UCL, said optimists may genuinely lead more stress-free existences than pessimists. For example, they may be easier to get on with than pessimists and run into conflict less often. Or they may be less likely to view daily incidents as stresses.

"If you have an optimistic disposition, it seems quite plausible that you won't regard relatively trivial occurrences in your life as stressful," he said.

"There is evidence that greater optimism and less pessimism is linked with reduced risk of future ill-health.

"This could be related to lifestyle - greater physical activity, better diet, less smoking – though optimism also has biological correlates, such as lower systemic inflammation, that may be health protective."

Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, professor of public health at New Mexico State University, interviewed by Healthline, said, "In the 21st century, a lot of evidence has emerged on optimism and positivity and how they can influence immune systems, brain function, and physical health,"

"Too much stress and negative states of mind weaken the neuroendocrine and immune responses of the body, causing vulnerability to disease or weaker recovery from diseases as the body cannot mount a strong response to stress and disease. It is a complex interplay of disease/stressor vulnerability, perception of disease/stress, and the reaction of our body to stressors/disease that are interlinked."

"Find and focus on behaviours toward positive outcomes that can be accomplished and experienced in the future, and behaviour and situations that can be changed versus those that are more fixed or rigid," said Joel Milam, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics with the University of California at Irvine Program in Public Health.

One suggestion is to "reduce exposure to news/mass media, which tend to present negative situations as pervasive/universal, permanent, and uncontrollable. These situational perspectives undermine optimism."

Learn More: Optimists Turn Down the News

Focusing on mindfulness and intention may help, too.

"We have to be intentionally optimistic," Gregory Scott Brown, MD, a psychiatrist, mental health writer, and author of "The Self-Healing Mind," told Healthline.

"There are two sides to every coin, and sometimes it's just easier to focus on ways things aren't going well. Sometimes, I begin my appointments by asking patients to tell me three things that are going well in their life. It can completely change the tone of the next hour of our conversation."

"Imagine if we began every day with intentional gratitude for the good things in our life. I suspect it would positively benefit our physical and mental health."

Learn More: Practise Gratitude

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