Beauty + Wellness

Thoughts Become Things | Optimism as a Daily Practice

by | Apr 5, 2017

It might surprise you to know that hope and confidence about the future or successful outcomes is unnatural to human beings. Rather, research shows that, evolutionarily speaking, humans were programmed to be pessimistic – to imagine the worst-case scenario – which in turn propelled our flight-or-fight system. This allows us to escape from any imminent danger or predators. Research actually shows that people who are pessimistic may be more realistic, but at what cost?

However, just because we have been predisposed to be somewhat inherently pessimistic, doesn’t mean that imagining the worst will be helpful in the present times. The modern world looks drastically different from those nomadic days, and while we no longer have to fend off wild animals we do of course have newer types of threats. Pessimism just doesn’t seem to be the answer for survival anymore.

In popular culture, the definition of being optimistic seems to focus on seeing full glasses of water and constantly viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses. Instead, a more functional definition of optimism is being able to see the problems and look through them for solutions: seeing setbacks as temporary but believing you have the ability through your thoughts and actions to find a way out of problems and into the realm of achieving goals.

We can all agree the future, largely unknown, is for the most part left up to our imagination. A fewer amount of people conjure up images of perfect situations unfolding and others are constantly planning for the worst. Though pessimism is more natural to us, the good news is that optimism can in fact be learned. In a way, optimism is a muscle we all possess that mindfully needs to be ‘worked out’, and as a professional psychologist and optimism doctor, I coach people in this type of mental and emotional exercise in order to live life more happily and healthfully.

I believe that practicing optimism means to increase the future positive thoughts one has about oneself and the world around them. Optimism, like much else, is measured on a spectrum, and given that it impacts your physical and mental well-being, it is important to know just where you are on that spectrum. It is what I like to call ‘Your Personal Optimism Factor’, and raising it is generally the aim. Why? Here are eight truths about the benefits of being optimistic based on several studies and restudies done over the past 50 years:

1. Optimism increases longevity. Research shows that people who have an increased sense of optimism live longer. Not just in extra days or years, but actually living more fully, so their quality of life is improved and lengthened. A study done at the University of North Carolina (Brummett et al., 2006) found that the most pessimistic people in the study had a 43 percent higher rate of death than the most optimistic people in the same study.

2. Optimistic people get sick less often. Not only do they get less sick, but when an optimistic person is sick they heal and bounce back at a much quicker rate than their pessimistic counterparts. They are also less likely to get colds and common respiratory viruses.

3. Optimistic people report far less stress levels. Therefore, in difficult times they are less overwhelmed. Internally, optimistic people showed less cortisol and inflammation blood levels, reduced adrenaline, increased immune functioning, and less active clotting systems.

4. Optimistic people are happier. Optimistic people report higher levels of happiness and other positive emotions. Research shows that when people are in a positive mood, their executive brain functioning is at its optimal and active, and they are able to solve problems better and be more productive.

5. Optimistic people sleep better. Optimistic people report increased quality of sleep and overall restfulness. Various sleep studies report the multitude of health benefits from positive sleep hygiene and quality.

6. Optimistic people have elevated social relationships. They also report greater quality support systems.

7. Optimistic people achieve more goals and personal successes.

8. Optimism helps protect the heart and circulation. Optimistic people have better blood pressure and are less likely to have hypertension or heart disease.

Adapted from an article written for Harper’s Bazaar