While independent correlations between optimism and physical health have been observed (more on that in an upcoming post – definitely some cool stuff going on with our immune system!), researchers have identified one of the main mechanisms underlying the optimism/good stuff effect – and it basically comes down to not avoiding things.
*Don’t worry: The irony isn’t lost that while I’m sitting here typing an article on procrastination and googling cute pictures of tiny cardboard creatures (no clue how that even got started?!), I have a huge research proposal to prepare, a million pages of reading due and, oh, just about half a dozen major life decisions to make (little things like: where am I going to live? how am I going to make money?)…
(But seriously, how cute is that guy?!)
*Sigh* I promise to get back to studying… right after this ;)
Here’s how it works
Studies have shown that optimism is related to both problem-focused coping (handling stuff whenever it comes up versus denial/putting things off) as well as proactive coping (taking active steps to ensure positive outcomes, before anything even goes wrong). And, as it turns out, those specific coping styles have some major health benefits.
A 1989 study of coronary artery bypass patients found that before surgery, optimists reported making post-surgery plans and setting goals for recovery more so than pessimists. Once the surgery was over, optimists were more likely than pessimists to seek out information from their physician about what they needed to do in the months ahead. Optimists were also less likely to suppress thoughts about their symptoms.
The cool part? There’s evidence that the positive impact of optimism on patients’ quality of life six months later occurred through the indirect effect of these differences in coping – which means that adopting an optimistic perspective (and approaching our problems, instead of avoiding them!) can have a measurable impact on our health and overall well-being!
Not sure where to start? Don’t worry! There’s specific steps we can take to change our coping style! Read on to learn…
How to be optimistic…
1. ACCEPT – BUT DON’T GIVE UP
♦ Acceptance and denial are two very different things. Optimists tend to accept bad circumstances (i.e., “life is different, but not over”), while pessimists often refuse to deal with things at all (remember: problem-focused coping is your friend!). In fact, multiple studies (see: 1 & 2) have suggested that reacting to an illness with resignation (accepting but giving up!) may actually speed up death. On the other hand, researchers have found that accepting bad health news (with optimism!) may actually keep the individual “life engaged”.
2. GET AS MUCH INFO AS POSSIBLE
♦ A 2002 study found that middle-aged adults who were high in dispositional optimism knew more about the risk factors for heart attacks. Which leads us to our next point…
3. DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!
♦ Shepperd, Maroto & Pbert (1996) studied patients in a cardiac rehabilitation program and found that optimism was related to an increase in exercise, as well as success in lowering levels of saturated fat, body fat and an index of overall coronary risk! Another study found that five years after coronary artery bypass surgery, optimists were more likely than pessimists to be taking vitamins, eating low-fat foods and to be enrolled in a cardiac rehabilitation program.
4. FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT!
♦ Schou, Ekeberg & Ruland (2005) found that the “greater fighting spirit” of optimists (assessed before breast cancer diagnosis) predicted better quality of life at a one-year follow-up. Hopelessness/helplessness (reported by pessimists) predicted poorer quality of life.
5. GET BACK OUT THERE
♦ A 2003 study found that breast cancer patients reported illness-related disruption of social activities after treatment. At each assessment, pessimism predicted more disruption, along with emotional distress and fatigue. As summarized by the Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, “When confronted with a health threat, pessimism led to a withdrawal from the very social activities that are important to a normal life.”
So, in other words: Don’t let bad stuff slow your roll :)
Ok, on that note, I better get back to studying ;) Hope you guys enjoyed! Let me know if you have any questions!
xo Jessica ♥
Carver, C.S., Lehman, J.M. & Antoni, M.H. (2003). Dispositional pessimism predicts illness-related disruption of social and recreational activities among breast cancer patients. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4): 813-21.
Carver, C.S., Scheier, M.F., Miller, C.J. & Fulford, D. (2009). Optimism. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (2nd Ed.) (pp. 303-311). New York: Oxford University Press.
Greer, S., Morris, T., Pettingale, K.W. & Haybittle, J.L. (1990). Psychological response to breast cancer and 15-year outcome. Lancet, 335(8680): 49-50.
Radcliffe, N.M. & Klein, W.M.P. (2002). Dispositional, unrealistic, and comparative optimism: Differential relations with the knowledge and processing of risk information and beliefs about personal risk. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28: 836-846.
Reed, G.M., Kemeny, M.E., Taylor, S.E., Wang, H.Y. & Visscher, B.R. (1994). Realistic acceptance as a predictor of decreased survival time in gay men with AIDS. Health Psychology, 13(4): 299-307.
Scheier, M.F. & Carver, C.S. (1992). Effects of optimism on psychological and physical well-being: Theoretical overview and empirical update. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 16(2): 201-228.
Scheier, M.F., Matthews, K.A., Owens, J.F., Magovern, G.J. Sr., Lefebvre, R.C., Abbott, R.A. & Carver, C.S. (1989). Dispositional optimism and recovery from coronary artery bypass surgery: the beneficial effects on physical and psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6): 1024-40.
Scheier, M.F. & Carver, C.S. (2001). Adapting to cancer: The importance of hope and purpose. In A. Baum & B.L. Anderson (Eds.), Psychosocial interventions for cancer (pp. 15-36). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Schou, I., Ekeberg, Ø. & Ruland, C.M. (2005). The mediating role of appraisal and coping in the relationship between optimism-pessimism and quality of life. Psychooncology, 14(9): 718-27.
Shepperd, J.A., Maroto, J.J. & Pbert, L.A. (1996). Dispositional optimism as a predictor of health changes among cardiac patients. Journal of Research in Personality, 30(4): 517-534.