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The Health Benefits of Optimism
The Health Benefits of Optimism
A growing body of research on optimism suggests the ability to see fullness instead of emptiness leads to a longer, happier life—as well as a more successful one. Martin Seligman, PhD, currently the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, nails the definition of optimism in his book Learned Optimism: “The optimist's outlook on failure can be summarized as ‘What happened was an unlucky situation (not personal), and really just a setback (not permanent) for this one, of many, goals (not pervasive).’”
It turns out optimism is not merely about seeing the world through rosy lenses but about something more gritty: persistence in the face of failure. Optimists don’t give up. And their resilience borders on the spiritual. When faced with a situation beyond their control—stressors such as death, sickness and unemployment—optimists tap into something Suzanne Segerstrom, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky and author of Breaking Murphy's Law (Guilford Press, 2011), calls “existential resources.”
Segerstom defines this kind of resource as “having to do with the meaning of existence.” Optimists extend their conviction of the future's inherent beneficence even to events normally perceived as negative. When faced with the death of a loved one, for example, an optimist might react by finding the good in the situation, or considering how the loss has made them grow as a person.
Better living through positivity
Optimism makes not only for a more pleasant life, but also a longer one. A study published in the January 2012 issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine showed that optimism was a significant predictor of longevity. “Every thought, every experience, every emotion makes an impression on not only our subconscious mind, but also our physiology,” says Michael Murray, ND, an author of several leading books on natural medicine, including the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (Atria Books, 2012).
“There is an enormous amount of research indicating that a positive attitude as well as emotions have a positive effect on virtually every body function—especially the immune, heart and vascular, detoxification and hormonal systems,” Murray says. Research points to the relationship between optimism and rates of depression, lower levels of distress, greater resistance to the common cold and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
Dispersing the gloom cloud
Segerstrom calls optimism the opposite of Murphy's Law—the idea that anything that can go wrong will. Luckily, according to the experts, optimism is something that can be learned. First, you need to unlearn the perniciousness of pessimism. “Positively framed questions and affirmations are useful, but the biggest impact is made by simply becoming more aware of your habitual self-talk and being a guardian against negativity,” says Murray. “We all talk to ourselves. There is a constant dialog taking place in our heads. Become aware of your self-talk, and then consciously work to imprint positive self-talk on the subconscious mind.”
Fake it till you make it
Once you learn to counter your defeatism with a more upbeat take, you may find your behavior taking a radical turn. No longer stuck playing the victim role, heir to the seeming outrages of fortune, you may find yourself energized by your own autonomy. The ability to disengage from recurring negative thought patterns marks the decisive turning point. Even if you aren’t 100 percent convinced that good things will happen, at least you have lost your certainty that bad things will. The beauty of learning optimism is you don’t have to be militantly starry-eyed—you can fake it till you make it, says Segerstrom. Acting as if you believe you can achieve your goals and vision is enough. Slowly but surely, the right feelings will come along for the (joy) ride.
Take your goals seriously
The best way to start acting optimistically? Become more engaged with your goals. Segerstrom recommends making a list of your goals for the next few months or years and reviewing it every so often to evaluate what’s working (or not)—and to celebrate how far you have come. Stay connected with your goals by reminding yourself why they hold such value for you. In her book Breaking Murphy's Law, Segerstrom credits psychologist Ken Sheldon with these three tips for increasing motivation and determination:
- Own the goal. What is the core value the goal expresses? Stay in touch with why your goal matters.
- Make it fun. Find a way to maximize your enjoyment while in pursuit of your goal. If it’s to write a novel, find the most conducive venue for writing.
- Remember the big picture. Don’t get caught up in the details; instead remind yourself of the bigger picture it serves. Rather than “lose weight,” think about living a healthier, more exuberant life.
Elizabeth is an award-winning journalist who has written about everything from agave syrup to placebos to zero waste. She writes for the magazines Natural Health, Backpacker and FitPregnancy, among others, as well as a handful of websites, including Gaiam and Natural Medicine Journal. She also has coauthored a 52-card oracle deck with guidebook called The Mother’s Wisdom Deck (Sterling Publishers).
October 31st, 2012