Why it pays to be optimistic
Ever wondered whether it’s better to see the glass as half empty or half full? There’s a growing body of research that has your answer: For your health, for achievement, for living well, it would seem that “half full” is the way to go.
It’s hard to ignore the long list of benefits that come with an optimistic frame of mind. A starter list:
A glass half-full spills over to your health
Does it surprise you that a positive framework isn’t just about a feel-good attitude? It’s also about physical and mental health.
A major study of cardiovascular disease looked at data from the Women’s Health Initiative, one of the largest multi-faceted preventive health studies of its kind. The focus was on quality of life, chronic disease and survival in more than 95,000 women across an 8-year period.
The effect of mindset was powerful: Women with an optimistic view were less likely than pessimists to develop coronary heart disease. And, they had lower total mortality from all causes across the 8 years of study.
Other studies have found that optimism may protect against stroke and make you less likely to be re-hospitalized after bypass surgery.
More research is needed to clarify the link between optimism and good health—and it’s likely that more than one mechanism is at work. But there are intriguing biological benefits to a sunny attitude:
A 2008 study of 2,873 healthy men and women found that a positive outlook on life was linked to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And in women, it was associated with lower levels of two markers of inflammation that predict the risk of heart attack and stroke.
What about pain? Turns out that optimism may help you better inhibit pain by mentally disengaging from it.
Good news: Pessimists can learn a more optimistic frame of mind.
Wishing you were a little more positive? There’s no need to concoct mindless fantasies or repeat empty affirmations (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough”…and so on).
You can move in the right direction by changing the stories you tell yourself when bad things happen. Psychologists call this our “explanatory style,” and it can make all the difference.
The founder of the modern positive psychology himself, Martin Seligman, compares the pessimistic and optimistic explanatory styles in his online course, Foundations of Positive Psychology. (You can take the whole series of positive psychology courses from the University of Pennsylvania on Coursera – highly recommended by the Guides here at MOBE.)
When bad things happen, you can flip the messages you send yourself from one side to the other. And this doesn’t mean making up pie-in-the-sky stories or being dishonest with yourself. Over time, you’ll learn there’s almost always more than one explanation for anything negative that comes your way.
Personal vs. Not personal
A colleague criticizes your product idea in front of a team during a weekly meeting.
It’s not about me: She may need to do this to build herself up.
Uncontrollable vs. Controllable
Your blood pressure is up from your last doctor visit.
I can add more fruits and veggies to my day.
Permanent vs. Temporary
You walk into the gym and see lots of fit, active bodies.
After a few sessions with a trainer, I’ll feel more confident.
Remember: Realism has its place
In the end, a position somewhere between pessimism and optimism is probably the best place to land. (The glass, after all, is only half full!)
Seligman cautions us that there are times not to use the skill of optimism. The key is to ask yourself “What is the cost of failure in this situation?” If the cost is very high, optimism is the wrong strategy.
Think about three hypothetical situations:
In all three examples the costs of failure are very high: death, a car accident or the loss of financial resources. Being a realist in each of these situations is a matter of life, death and financial security.
But it is worth flipping the pessimism script whenever a typical day throws up barriers to feeling optimistic.
No matter how painful, embarrassing or disappointing a bad outcome is in any of these scenarios, the actual cost of failure is pretty low. And that’s where optimism is a powerful tool.
Optimism keeps you moving forward. It can help you meet your goals. And, ultimately, it may help you live a longer, more fulfilling life.