The pessimist may be right in the end, but the optimist has more fun along the way. That positive mindset may be doing more than just providing a bit of fun. Optimism can improve your health too.
We’ve known for a long time the connection between the mental and physical states, but the mental side of things often gets overlooked. Maybe this is because we don’t quite understand how the brain works like we do other parts of the body. Or we don’t feel we have as good treatment options.
Being an optimist is someone who has a positive outlook in life. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re always happy. And it doesn’t mean you’re a full-blown success. Pessimists experience happiness and joy, and can also be successful. At the same time, someone who may be considered at the bottom of society’s success ladder can actually be optimistic.
It boils down to whether you think good things will happen to you or not. The pessimist thinks bad things will happen. Some of this may just be in the mind, but it may also be self-deterministic. To take a quote from Guinan (played by Whoopi Goldberg) on Star Trek: “When a man is convinced he’s going to die tomorrow, he’ll probably find a way to make it happen.”
Optimism can Keep You from an Early Grave
In contrast, a positive mindset is associated with better health and a lower chance of disease. A review of 10 studies with over 200 000 participants found a 35% lower chance of getting heart disease and a 14% lower chance of early death in people who were optimists. People who are optimistic also have better results following surgery, with less complications requiring hospital readmission. This may be related to the finding that optimists have better coping skills when dealing with stress and setbacks.
From these studies it’s hard to know if it’s the positive outlook, which is making a person healthy, or if being healthy leads to a positive outlook. Perhaps people who are at greater risk for being sick are less optimistic because of that.
It’s possible it could come down to the fact that people who are positive engage in healthy behaviours. They’re more likely to eat healthy, exercise and not smoke, because they’re more knowledgeable about health and disease.
However, being optimistic is associated with biological risk factors such as lower blood sugar and cholesterol. In addition, that positive thinking may also boost your immunity and reduce your chances of getting infection and cancer. Even when taking into account healthy behaviours, optimistic people had a 15% longer lifespan and 50% greater chance of living past 85 than people with a negative outlook.
Train Yourself to Be Optimistic
While we might think people who are optimistic are born that way, that’s not the case. You can actually train yourself to become optimistic. One such method, called the Best Possible Self, resulted in improved optimism just after one session. All people had to do was spend five minutes each day imagining the best possible future for themselves. This also helps you avoid dwelling on the past, which can prevent us from moving forward.
Other ways include keeping a journal. In it keep track of the things you are thankful for. You can either do this in the morning to start your day off on a positive note, or in the evening to recount all the good things that happened that day. If you do have negative thoughts, write them down too and write down why you have them. Often we find our negativity comes from some underlying fear we have.
Our mental outlook is also contagious. Hanging out with people who are negative can rub off onto you and bring you down. Likewise, being around people who are optimistic can lift your spirits and instill a brighter view on life. So try to spend time with other positive people and ask them how they see life through their eyes.
While we spend so much time focusing on the outside world, we actually process and make sense of that world in our own internal thoughts. Two people can look at the same glass of water and see different things based on their own outlook. Charles Swindoll captured this well when he said, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it”.
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