Optimism

There are many benefits that accrue to those who are optimistic.1 Optimists recover better from medical procedures, and have healthier immune systems. They live longer both in general and when suffering from conditions such as cancer, heart disease and kidney failure.2

It is common knowledge that negative thoughts and anxiety can make us ill. The belief that we are at risk triggers physiological pathways such as the “flight or fight” response by the sympathetic nervous system. Although these have evolved to protect us from danger, when they are switched on long-term they increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes and dementia.

The new perspective on optimism is that positive beliefs don’t just work by quelling stress. They have unique positive effects. Feeling safe and secure and believing things will turn out fine seems to help the body maintain and repair itself. A review of recent studies concluded that the health benefits of positive thinking happen independently of the harm caused by negative states such as pessimism or stress, and are roughly comparable in magnitude.3

It is thought that optimism reduces stress-induced inflammation and levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. It might also reduce susceptibility to disease by dampening sympathetic nervous system activity and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system governs the “rest and digest” response—the counterpart to the “fight or flight” response.

Even if you are not an optimist, you can train yourself to think more positively, and it seems that the more stressed or pessimistic you are to begin with, the better it works. David Cresswell of the Carnegie Mellon University asked students facing exams to write short essays on times when they had displayed qualities that were important to them. The aim was to boost their sense of self-worth. Compared to the control group, these self-affirmed students had lower levels of adrenaline and other fight or flight hormones in their urine on exam day. The effect was greatest for those students who had been most worried about their exam results.4

Tali Sharot has written an interesting book claiming that we have an optimism bias because it provided us with an evolutionary advantage.5 When most people are asked what is going to transpire in the upcoming month, they tend to give an overly optimistic account. Similarly, when asked to provide an estimate of their longevity or of their having certain diseases, they also tend to provide overly optimistic accounts. The people who are able to provide fairly accurate estimates for these same questions tend to be those who are clinically diagnosed as being mildly depressed. This phenomenon is called depressive realism.6 So the idea is that truly accurate realism can be depressive. A species of mildly depressed individuals probably could not have evolved.

To conclude, although optimism can be good, there is also the possibility of too much of a good thing. See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Can Optimism Be Bad?”

1Much of this post is based on an article, Think Positive, by Jo Marchant in the New Scientist, 27 August 2011, p. 34.

2Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39, p.34.

3Psychosomatic Medicine, 70, p.741.

4Health Psychology, 28, p.554.

5Sharot, T. (2011). The Optimistm Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain., New York: Pantheon Books.

6Alloy, L.B., & Abramson.  (1979) Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students:   Sader but wiser.?  Journal of Experimental Psychology:  General, 108, 441-485.

 

 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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