Could Being an Optimist (or Faking it) Improve Your Health?

Elizabeth Millard
by Elizabeth Millard
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Could Being an Optimist (or Faking it) Improve Your Health?

If you’re the type of person who believes everything will work out eventually and bad situations are only temporary, it’s likely you have an optimistic personality. Congrats, because that could mean major health benefits.

According to Harvard Medical School, several studies have suggested a connection between a positive outlook and better outcomes from surgery, a stronger immune system, better heart function and even a longer lifespan. In one study, research participants who have a positive view of life tended to be able to adjust to pain easier, which can lead to lower levels of chronic pain management.

Being optimistic can also help you stick to healthy habits, another study noted. Researchers suggested optimistic people have been shown to engage more fully in behaviors like regular exercise, moderate alcohol consumption and smoking avoidance.

FAKE IT TIL YOU MAKE IT

Maybe you’re just not the optimistic type, especially in the midst of a long winter or if personal challenges are pushing you down. In a survey among adult Americans, about half called themselves optimists, but only 4% declared themselves pessimists. A large chunk of respondents — 43% — said they were “somewhere in between.” If you’re in this slice, that means you have some optimistic skills, even if you aren’t always looking on the bright side.

With that kind of flexibility, it may be time to practice some positive thinking and self-talk, since optimism can be more of a habit than a personality trait, according to the Mayo Clinic. Like any habit, you can train yourself to think and behave in a more optimistic way, and that can bring health advantages.

The Mayo Clinic suggests identifying areas to change by simply taking a mental step back and thinking about when you’re particularly negative. Is it at work meetings, during a daily commute, at home while doing cleaning tasks? By seeing your own thought patterns, it can be easier to gently redirect.

From there, consider adding more healthy lifestyle changes into those parts of your day. That might mean quick HIIT sessions, since exercise has been shown to positively affect mood or loading up on gut-healthy foods — another big mood booster.

Also, you don’t need to be super cheery all the time to tap into your inner optimist. According to dictionary definitions, optimism is simply having confidence or hopefulness about the future, and an ability to see the good aspects of a situation rather than only the negative parts.

FOR PERPETUAL PESSIMISTS

When you tend to tip toward the dark, half-empty side the majority of the time — if not all the time — then it’s possible you may not only be stuck in a pessimistic cycle, but could also be dealing with some type of burnout. This is very common when it’s on a short-term basis, says Dr. Michael Jonesco, a physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Many people get overwhelmed with work or family responsibilities, especially during times of change, and a spike in stress levels can lead to burnout symptoms like a persistent feeling of low personal accomplishment, indifference about your goals, disinterest in social activities, increased pain or physical issues — such as tension headaches, tight muscles and digestive problems — reduced sense of humor and joy and sleep difficulties.

Like many physicians, Dr. Jonesco goes through periods of burnout that make him feel exhausted, he notes. But he’s figured out how to reset himself back to that more energetic, sunnier side by exercising more, sticking to a consistent sleep schedule and putting his phone away during family time.

“Unfortunately, I’ve had to learn the hard way, after years of pushing myself to the brink,” he says. “But after suffering from burnout so many times, I started to identify ways that work for me to break the cycle.”

He suggests playing around with different strategies — especially when it comes to working out, eating well and getting sleep — and becoming more aware of how these changes affect your emotional outlook.

However, if you just can’t seem to shake consistently pessimistic feelings like indifference, anger, fatigue and joylessness, consider seeing a professional for some strategies that can help.

About the Author

Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth is a freelance journalist specializing in health and fitness. She’s also an organic farmer, yoga teacher, obstacle course aficionado and 5K junkie. Her work has appeared in SELF, Men’s Health, CNN, and other publications.

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