Health Benefits of a Positive Attitude - Optimists v. Pessimists

Studies show that your mental health can influence your physical health. And certain personality traits — such as optimism or pessimism — can influence how well you live and even how long you live.

Individuals who do not have psychiatric problems but score very high on a personality test pessimism scale have a 30 percent increased risk of developing dementia several decades later. The same is true of individuals who score very high on the test's depression scale. The risk is even higher -- 40 percent more -- for individuals who score very high on both anxiety and pessimism scales.

Being an optimist may help reduce your risk of dying from heart disease and other causes. A Dutch study found that people who described themselves as being highly optimistic had lower rates of cardiovascular death and less risk of any cause of death than people who said they were highly pessimistic.

The study included more than 900 men and women, aged 65 to 85, who filled out a questionnaire on health, self-respect, morale, optimism and relationships.

Those who reported high levels of optimism had a 55 percent lower risk of death from all causes and a 23 percent lower risk of cardiovascular death than people who reported high levels of pessimism. The protective effect of being optimistic seemed to offer stronger protection against all-cause death for men than for women.

"In conclusion, we found that the trait of optimism was an important long-term determinant of all cause and cardiovascular mortality in elderly subjects, independent of sociodemographic characteristics and cardiovascular risk factors," the study authors wrote.

"A predisposition toward optimism seemed to provide a survival benefit in elderly subjects with relatively short life expectancies otherwise," the authors added.

The findings appear in the November 2004 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? How you answer that question may reflect your outlook on life and whether you view situations positively or negatively.

Negative thoughts 'make you ill'

Having negative thoughts really could make you more illness-prone, say scientists. A study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences links "negative" brain activity with a weakened immune system.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison studied people with high levels of brain activity in a region linked to negative thoughts. Those with the highest activity levels responded worse to a flu vaccine.

Scientists already knew that pessimists - people rated as more sensitive to negative events - show more activity in a part of the brain called the right pre-frontal cortex. More activity in the left pre-frontal cortex is linked to positive emotional responses.

A new study is the first to demonstrate a link between positive feelings, or “positive affect,” and reduced risk of AIDS mortality, said lead author Dr. Judith Tedlie Moskowitz, of San Francisco’s University of California.

The study included information on the physical progression of HIV/AIDS and the emotional well being of 407 HIV-positive men from the San Francisco area between 1984 and 1993. More than half of the men died during the study.

Dr. Moskowitz found that the men who scored highest on a scale used to measure positive affect had a significantly reduced risk of dying from AIDS at any point during the study.

The power of positive feeling remained strong even when other factors were considered, such as high white blood cell counts and the use of antiretroviral medicine, she said.

Measurements of negative feeling and interpersonal relationships were not significantly related to the risk of dying from AIDS, indicating that positive affect is the “active ingredient” in the association between emotional well-being and AIDS mortality, Dr. Moskowitz said.

Although, it remains unclear how emotional health could affect mortality, she suggests that positive feeling may give a boost to protective elements of the immune system or encourage healthy behaviors among men with HIV.

A Healthy Outlook
A study in the August 2002 issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings reports that people who expect misfortune and who only see the darker side of life don't live as long as those with a more optimistic view.

Researchers evaluated results from a personality test taken by participants more than 30 years ago and compared them to subsequent mortality rates. They found that people who scored high on optimism had a 50 percent lower risk of premature death than those who scored more pessimistic.
Besides a lowered risk of early death, researchers found other health benefits related to positive attitude. In the study, optimists reported:

  • Fewer problems with work or other daily activities because of physical or emotional health

  • Less pain and fewer limitations due to pain

  • Less interference from physical or emotional problems when engaging in social activities

  • Increased energy

  • Feeling more peaceful, happier and calmer

The researchers surveyed individuals in 1994 who previously had taken the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) at Mayo Clinic between 1962 and 1965. The 500-question personality test has an optimism-pessimism scale that grades the "explanatory style" of the participants — how people explain the causes of life's events — and categorizes them as optimists, pessimists or mixed based on their answers to certain questions.

The results could lead to ways to help pessimistic people change their perceptions and behaviors and thereby improve their health and perhaps lengthen their lives, says Toshihiko Maruta, M.D., a psychiatrist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., and lead author of the study.

"It confirmed our common-sense belief," says Dr. Maruta. "It tells us that mind and body are linked and that attitude has an impact on the final outcome — death."

The researchers said they couldn't definitively explain how a pessimistic outlook acts as a risk factor for decreased longevity. Dr. Maruta says optimists may be less likely to develop depression or "learned helplessness," a condition that occurs when someone is exposed to repeated punishment or negative conditions and perceives no chance of getting away. Optimists also might be more likely to seek and receive medical help, seeing bad events as specific, temporary and controllable.

Pessimists, on the other hand, see life events negatively and expect the worst possible outcome. When bad events occur, pessimists often blame themselves and see problems as permanent and pervasive. "It would help if they interpreted their negative experiences in such a way that they didn't blame themselves when things went wrong," Dr. Maruta says. "It also would help if they didn't think bad situations or experiences were going to last and realized that such circumstances often are temporary."

Positive Attitudes and Aging

Positive attitudes about aging may affect your quality of life as you get older. If you expect to live a long life filled with physical vitality, humor and social connections, those fundamental beliefs can shape your future for the better.

But if you're convinced that old age will be a time of emptiness, depression and sickness, you'll probably find yourself experiencing a mental and physical deterioration. In general, your negative expectations can make you age faster than nature intended. This is a classic example of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Your perception of aging may also impact how long you live. The August 2002 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports that older individuals who viewed aging in a positive light lived 7.5 years longer than those who had a negative view of aging.

Are You Satisfied?

Other research suggests that you can increase your chances of living to a ripe old age just by being satisfied with your life.

According to a study published in the November 2000 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, life satisfaction can increase the length of your life. Researchers from the University of Turku in Finland found that men who reported high levels of satisfaction with their life were more likely to be alive 20 years later. Men dissatisfied with their lives were more than twice as likely to die within that time frame regardless of cause and more than three times more likely to die of a disease.

Life satisfaction refers to a general sense of well-being and takes into account your interest in life and your feelings of happiness or loneliness, the report explains. Although marriage, exercise, higher social class, not smoking and drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may decrease your risk of early death, the association between feeling satisfied and living longer may play an important role in living longer.

In the March 2001 issue of American Journal of Psychiatry, these same researchers report that dissatisfaction with life can also lead to higher rates of suicide.

Be Positive!

Life inevitably presents challenges and frustrations. It's up to you to look for ways to improve your life and enhance your overall being. You can do a number of things to experience greater joy and pleasure in life:

  • Exercise. Aerobic exercise releases endorphins — the feel good substances — which reduce stress, depression and anxiety. Exercise can also produce a sense of mastery and accomplishment while reducing irritability and anger. Try it! Next time you get upset take at least a half hour walk. Look at the autumn leaves or smell the flowers. Appreciate nature. Count your blessings.

  • Eat well. Both your body and your mind need good nutrition to function. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and grains and adding healthy oils (fish and olive) can improve the way you feel. At the very minimum, take a high potency multiple vitamin everyday.

  • Get plenty of rest. Sleep refreshes you. It improves your attitude and gives you energy for physical activity and coping with stress. Consider an earlier bedtime or take melatonin and/or 5-HTP before resting.

  • Reduce stress. Eliminating stress and conflict in your life can be rewarding. Identify the areas of your life that cause you the most stress, then change and leave the stress behind.

  • Detoxify Your Body and Mind. Consider taking a colon cleanse to improve your digestion and elimination. Clean out the toxic sludge in your body. Practice forgiveness for both yourself and others. Don’t hold on to grudges. Treat them like hot potatoes. Drop them immediately.

Consider positive affirmations:

  • Endless good now comes to me in endless ways.

  • I am at peace with myself and the whole world.

  • I forgive everyone and everyone forgives me.

  • I am serene and peaceful.

  • I release all fear and anxiety.

  • I release all stress and tension.

  • I release all negative thoughts and feelings.

  • I respond to stressful situations in healthy and healing ways.

  • I face every situation without fear.

  • I am naturally attracted to the foods that are healthy for me.

  • I take the supplements my body needs.

  • I am vital and energetic.

  • I see myself at my healthy weight.

  • I enjoy eating less while getting all the nutrition I need.

  • Developing healthy eating habits gets easier and easier.

  • My heart rejoices that God is always healing me.

Take a step back. Write down all the good things you have accomplished. If your list is too short, add a section of new directions you'd like to explore. Affirm your needs and desires and focus on being satisfied with the life you have — your health depends on it. Your life depends on it.

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