Will becoming more hopeful lead to increased health benefits? A recent study suggests so. Published in the prestigious journal, Circulation last month, this study reported that the most optimistic individuals in a group of nearly 7000 older adults were also the least likely to suffer from heart failure. Controlling for a variety of variables, including education, marital status, depression, anxiety, physical activity, weight, and chronic disease, researchers concluded that optimism independently reduces the risk of heart failure. The results of this study are consistent with several others that have found a positive relationship between optimism and a variety of health outcomes including coronary heart disease incidence and mortality, stroke, re-hospitalization following coronary bypass, and risk of death in general.
Theories of how optimism reduces the risk of certain diseases include:
- Optimism has been linked to a reduction in certain risk factors of chronic disease including lower levels of inflammation, increased levels of antioxidants, and better lipid profiles.
- The immune response of optimists is generally stronger than among pessimists.
- A stronger social network and greater social support are generally found among optimists. Reported satisfaction with intimate relationships is also higher among optimists. Improvements in these markers of social health are thought to improve physical wellbeing.
- Stress- coping mechanisms are generally stronger among optimists. Not only do optimists generally report less distress and more positive emotions in stressful situations, cortisol responses have been found to be lower than among pessimists.
- Motivation to perform healthy behaviors is generally greater among optimists. Optimists are more likely to exercise regularly and consistently consume a healthy diet and less likely to smoke than pessimists. It is thought that greater motivation comes from a deeper hope that performing the action will provide benefits.
For optimists and pessimists alike, studies have shown you can increase your levels of optimism in as little as two weeks. Take a few minutes to envision your best possible future self. Write down everything you can about that self. What will you be doing? What will you have accomplished? What kind of people will you be surrounded by? Start each sentence with the phrase, “In the future I will…” Once you have a firm image of your future self, spend 5 minutes each day visualizing your future self. If you continue to struggle with remaining optimistic after following the above activity for two weeks, a therapist or other behavioral health specialist may be able to provide additional help and support in fostering a more optimistic outlook.
Currently, most of the evidence linking optimism to increased health has been observational. Future studies implementing experimental protocols targeted at improving optimism may provide better clarity on whether altering levels of optimism will, in fact, provide increased physical health benefits. While it is not known for sure if optimism increasing activities like the one outlined above will provide health benefits, a good approach may be to try it and hope.
By Ron Beckstrom, MS, RD, HFS
This article is for nutrition information purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any health concerns you may have. The information in this article is not intended to promote any specific product, or for the prevention or treatment of any disease. Highlights taken from studies should not be viewed as scientific fact, but rather as the author’s interpretation of a scientific study. The validity of study information is not guaranteed nor are the author’s views guaranteed to be aligned with those of the researchers that published the study.