In these turbulent times, it’s sometimes a struggle to maintain a glass-half-full view of life. But if you can, it may serve you well. A growing body of research links optimism—a sense that all will be well—to a lower risk for mental or physical health issues and to better odds of a longer life.
One of the largest such studies was led by researchers Dr. Kaitlin Hagan and Dr. Eric Kim at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Their team analyzed data from 70,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study who, in 2004, had answered questions about how they viewed their futures
The researchers found that women who scored higher on the optimism scale were significantly less likely to die from several major causes of death over an eight-year period, compared with women who scored lower. In fact, compared to the most pessimistic women, the most optimistic had a 16% lower risk of dying from cancer, 38% lower risk of dying from heart disease, 39% lower risk of dying from stroke, 38% lower risk of dying from respiratory disease, and 52% lower risk of dying from infection.
How you can acquire optimism
Even if you consider yourself a pessimist, there’s hope. Dr. Hagan notes that a few simple changes can help people become more optimistic. “Previous studies have shown that optimism can instilled by something as simple as having people think about the best possible outcomes for various areas of their lives,” she says. The following may help you see the world through rosier glasses:
Accentuate the positive. Keep a journal. In each entry, underline the good things that have happened and things you’ve enjoyed, and concentrate on them. Consider how they came about and what you can do to keep them coming.
Eliminate the negative. If you find yourself ruminating on negative situations, do something to short-circuit that train of thought. Turn on your favorite music, reread a novel you love, or get in touch with a good friend.
Act locally. Don’t fret about your inability to influence global affairs. Instead, do something that can make a small positive change—like donating clothes to a relief organization, helping clean or replant a neighborhood park, or volunteering at an after-school program.
Be easier on yourself. Self-compassion is a characteristic shared by most optimists. You can be kind to yourself by taking good care of your body—eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep. Take stock of your assets and concentrate on them. Finally, try to forgive yourself for past transgressions—real or imagined—and move on.
Learn mindfulness. Adopting the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment and accepting it without judgment can go a long way in helping you deal with unpleasant events. If you need help, many health centers now offer mindfulness training. There are books, videos, and smartphone apps to guide you.