OPTIMISM AND HEALTH
You probably know people who see the cup as half-empty, and others who see it as half-full. Optimists and pessimists, right? You probably label others and yourself as one type or the other, but you would probably like to be an optimist about most things. One thing for sure is that if you’re like most people, you don’t like being around pessimists and grouches who bring you down by always looking on the dark side. Let’s face it, a pessimistic spouse is a threat to marital stability; a pessimistic work colleague is a threat to productivity and morale; a pessimistic friend is……..well, a soon-to-be-former friend.
Some say being a pessimist is an appropriate way to view reality. To a pessimist, the optimist is unrealistic. For instance, a couple may have plans for a golf outing. The wife says, “Did you hear the weather forecast? And look at those clouds. Our golf round is going to be ruined. What a bummer. I hate rain.”
Well, there’s no doubt that the expectation of rain mirrors what may be shaping up as reality, but the optimistic husband might point out: “Yeh, looks bad. Put the golf clubs away. Remember that movie we’ve been wanting to watch? Let’s make some popcorn and hot chocolate and have a movie afternoon.”
The pessimist’s retort? “But the forecast calls for bad thunderstorms, heavy winds, and possible downed power lines. Why get involved in a movie and then have the power go out?”
“Screw it then,” he responds, “I’m going drinking with the guys.” Uh, oh, here comes another argument!
When we talk about optimism and pessimism, realism is not the issue; the issue is how you respond to reality. If you’re a downer, your social life will suffer. Who wants to be around someone who generally looks on the dark side of things? But not only does your outlook influence how you get along with other people, it also can affect your physical health. Can an optimistic approach to life translate into good physical health? Does pessimism increase your odds of getting sick? The answers might surprise you.
Some studies have actually exposed volunteers to cold viruses. Lively, energetic, cheerful, optimistic, and relaxed folks tended to get fewer colds than sad, nervous, pessimistic, and short-tempered volunteers. Another study found that optimistic first-year law students had better immune system functioning than pessimistic students. Optimism has also been found to be associated with a higher number of infection-fighting killer cells in the immune system, lower rates of stroke, and reduced rate of cardiovascular problems.
The health-enhancing effects of an optimistic attitude are pretty well established, but let’s take it a step further: can optimism guarantee you a long and healthy life? The key word there is “guarantee,” and the answer is, “Of course not, no more than are eating a healthy diet, exercising, and not smoking guarantees you a long and healthy life.” Whereas a positive outlook can bolster your immune system, there is little evidence that such an outlook can increase your longevity or cure you from an already-contracted disease. For instance, survival rates for terminal cancer patients is not affected by whether the patient is an optimist or a pessimist. Of course, optimists with cancer are likely to enjoy what time they have left than pessimists.
One thing for sure, whether we’re talking longevity or cure, compared to pessimists, optimists are likely to have a higher quality of life, and we mean both physical and psychological quality. When it comes to effective coping, it pays to be an optimist, as long as you’re realistic about it. Optimists are more likely to succeed and develop a “can-do” attitude about life’s obstacles, characteristics that will trigger their immune systems to be stronger and give them a healthier attitude about stress. Optimism is a great psychological support system. And remember, you are not born as an optimist or pessimist. You can learn to cultivate a positive outlook in yourself. You can learn to think about events in your lives more accurately, objectively, realistically, and rationally. In short, you can learn to confront adversity in more positive ways.
There is no doubt about the power of optimistic actions for your physical and psychological well-being. When you are guided by realistic optimism, your immune system will probably function better. You will also be more likely to see problems and difficulties in life as challenges that can be met and overcome, and you will be more likely to be liked by others. Finally, when you fail you will probably analyze how to correct your mistakes rather than simply blame yourself as being unworthy and weak.