How To Become An Optimist And Why It Could Save Your Life And Your Bones
Life is full of ups and downs. You can’t control that. But what you can control is how you handle those ups and downs. The way you approach challenges or setbacks affects more than just how you feel, or what you expect; it has a direct impact on your health.
A holistic understanding of the human body includes an awareness that feelings and mental states are not divorced from our physical beings. They are in fact physical phenomena that we experience via chemical interactions in our brains and throughout our bodies. The way we think impacts the way we feel, which in turn impacts the way our bodies function.
Today we’re going to have a look at the health benefits of optimism (including how it affects your bone health), and the science that explains why positivity helps people stay healthier and live longer. Of course we’re not all naturally optimistic, but you can work on shifting your thinking to a more positive place. We’ll go through a list of strategies for becoming an optimist, and becoming healthier in the process!
Don’t forget that bone health is inextricably linked to whole health, and in the fight against fractures, you need every tool at your disposal. Today’s tool is optimism. If you’re thinking, “oh, that’ll NEVER work,” then you might need today’s article most of all!
Optimists Have Healthier Hearts
In several studies, which we’ll look at closer momentarily, participants who showed greater optimism were found to recover more fully and swiftly from coronary artery bypass surgery, were less likely to have heart attacks, and had lower blood pressure. To conduct a study with these sorts of results it is imperative to find a way to measure optimism.
There are two systems commonly used to evaluate optimism levels. The first is dispositional optimism and the other is explanatory style.
Dispositional optimism is often measured with something called the 12-Item Life Orientation Test. This series of questions measures someone’s positive expectations for their future. It touches upon multiple areas of life to avoid individual differences in the actual details of subject’s lives.
A measurement of explanatory style evaluates the way in which a person conveys good or bad news. The pessimist exhibit a particular set of hallmarks: taking the blame or feeling responsible for whatever has gone wrong, assuming that things will not improve or change, and accepting that bad news will have dire consequences in all areas of their life. On the other hand, an optimist exhibits the opposite: not feeling responsible for bad news or accepting it as permanent or likely to cause other negative outcomes. The optimist takes credit for good news, in contrast, and sees the positive result as likely to continue and to create other good outcomes along the way.
The studies that follow use methods of personality testing like those above to determine who is a pessimist and who is an optimist. Scientists then compare the outcomes of specific and consistent health scenarios to see if there are differences between the two groups.
A study conducted by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Psychology set out to determine whether optimism might be a predictor of lower rates of rehospitalization after coronary artery bypass graft surgery. They determined which of the 309 patients in the cohort were quantifiably optimists, and then followed all of their recoveries after surgery.1
It turned out that the optimistic patients were:
“…significantly less likely to be rehospitalized for a broad range of aggregated problems (including postsurgical sternal wound infections, angina, myocardial infarction, and the need for another bypass surgery or percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty) generally indicative of a poor response to the initial surgery.”1
Furthermore, sociodemographic and medical differences didn’t matter, nor did relative self-esteem, depression, and neuroticism. Optimism as an independent trait had a positive impact on how effective the surgery was for patients, and how well they recovered.
Conversely, Pessimism Can Kill You
Another study, this one conducted in Finland, examined the impact of pessimism and optimism on risk factors for coronary heart disease (CHD) among people middled aged and older. The researchers followed three cohorts of different age groups, 52-56, 62-66 and 72-76.2
After establishing a medical baseline at the beginning of the study, the researchers personally interviewed each participant four times over the course of the ten years. In the very first meeting a widely respected test (the revised Life Orientation Test) was completed to determine each person’s level of dispositional optimism or pessimism. Then, over the subsequent meetings, new cases of coronary heart disease were measured. The results were incredibly clear:
“Those who developed coronary heart disease during the ten-year follow-up were significantly more pessimistic at baseline than the other subjects… among men in the highest quartile of pessimism, the risk for CHD was approximately four-fold that of the men in the lowest quartile. Optimism did not seem to have any role in the risk for developing CHD.”2
Cardiovascular events are the most common cause of death in the developed world. This study provides an incredibly valuable indicator that doctors could use to help establish which of their patients are most likely to develop CHD. It also shows that the bar for receiving a postive health benefit isn’t that high. The Finnish subjects didn’t need to be full blown optimists to fall into the group less likely to have heart problems, they just had to have brighter outlook than true pessimists.
It’s useful to remember that on a journey of change, every step makes a difference. If you’re trying to become an optimist, even if you haven’t made it all the way to the brighter side of thinking, the progress you have made is already helping your heart stay healthy!
Keeping Your Chin Up Can Keep Your Blood Pressure Down
A study published in 2000 builds upon the work of studies like those above that observe the negative health results of pessimists, and the positive outcomes of optimists, by digging into the relationship between hopelessness and hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure). Focusing on middle-aged men, the study culled a cohort of 616 subjects who initially had healthy blood pressure. They were given a medical evaluation and a series of psychological questionnaires at the baseline meeting, and at a follow-up meeting four years later.3
Men that showed high levels of hopelessness at the baseline meeting were three times more likely to become hypertensive during those four intervening years than the men who were not hopeless. Moderate levels of hopelessness showed a slightly elevated risk, but the increase wasn’t considered statistically significant, so again we see that even a little positivity makes a big difference.3
This study is by no means an outlier. Similar results were achieved in prior experiments, as well as by a large study in the US that showed hopelessness to be a predictor of increased risk of nonfatal ischemic heart disease in a cohort including both men and women.4
Optimism Might Save Your Life
This study balances out the male-leaning results of the last two we’ve looked at. Researchers here tapped into the massive data resource of the Nurses Health Study, which collected comprehensive health data for 70,021 women. After a dispositional optimism measurement in 2004, all-cause and cause-specific mortality rates were assessed from 2006 to 2012.5
A higher degree of optimism resulted in a lower mortality risk.5 Quite simply, the more positive the subject was, the more likely she was to still be alive 8 years later. The causes of death were diverse, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease and infection, suggesting that the beneficial effects of positivity go well beyond established improved cardiovascular health.
This study concludes:
“Given that optimism was associated with numerous causes of mortality, it may provide a valuable target for new research on strategies to improve health.”5
That target is the one we’re aiming for today, and even though your doctor may never have offered this method of improving your health (or saving your life!) we’ll have a look at some strategies that will help you increase your positivity and become the optimist you want to be.
What Makes Optimism So Impactful?
Savers have a healthy habit of curiosity and questioning, so you’re probably wondering why optimism has the impacts these studies prove. The studies themselves show the results, but they aren’t built to reveal the mechanism; that requires some informed speculation and deductive reasoning.
Skeptics among you might suspect that optimism is actually the result of good health, and not the other way around. While it stands to reason that those who are in good health might be more inclined to expect further good health, these studies account for that possibility. They take into account pre-existing medical conditions, and found that someone’s prior health didn’t change the positive impact of a sunny outlook.
One explanation offered is that optimists practice different, healthier behaviors than pessimists, suggesting that they get better medical care, build stronger social support networks, and make healthier life choices. Some studies have shown that optimists are more likely to exercise, less likely to smoke, and more frequently follow medical advice than pessimists.6 However, optimism doesn’t correlate with better diets, or leaner bodies, and even when cardiovascular risk factors are accounted for, the benefits of optimism still take effect.
One of the most compelling arguments brings the benefits of optimism into the territory of building stronger bones. A 2013 study published in the journal Health Psychology found that dispositional optimism leads to reduced levels of cortisol secretion.6 This is the result of the perception of stress. Pessimists tended to perceive situations as more stressful than optimists did, leading to higher cortisol levels.
As Savers know, high levels of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol cause bone loss. Cortisol should sweep in for a brief period to help you overcome an obstacle, then abate to allow normal body function. But when cortisol levels are high for prolonged periods, it wreaks havoc on many body systems, including bone formation and the processes that support it. Since optimists tend to produce less cortisol, they should experience more uninterrupted bone formation. This also helps explain the other health and life-extension benefits found by the studies above.
Additionally, another bone harming state, inflammation, is linked to pessimism.7 The mechanic here likely has to do with an association with lower levels of a inflammation markers C-reactive protein and interleukin-6, which predict the risk of heart attack and stroke.
How To Become An Optimist
Now that we’ve established that the benefits of optimism stretch from improved bone health to a longer, healthier life, you certainly have the motivation to take action. No matter how sunny your disposition, there are undoubtedly a few techniques below that you could employ to stay upbeat. If you’re inclination is a little darker, take heart, these methods can be used in any combination to help shift your outlook bit by bit. It might not be easy, and it might not come quickly, but persistence will pay off if you keep at it!
1. Let Optimism In
It’s easy to feel burdened by having to produce an optimistic viewpoint if it isn’t your natural inclination. Don’t take it all on by yourself! You deserve all the help you can get, and you can find it all around you. Surround yourself with optimistic people. Find that cheerful friend who always sees the silver lining, and include them in more parts of your life.
Positive people tend to share their energy and will support you in a difficult situation, providing an alternative viewpoint. You just have to make the effort to be receptive to their upbeat response, and resist the urge to argue against a positive point of view.
Positive information has an impact on your own perceptions. Do you tend to get your news or entertainment from downcast sources? Try to switch them out for some inspirational and upbeat sources of information and input. Find a positive blog, podcast, or video series and make it a part of your routine.
2. Observe Yourself
Before you can change your responses, you must be sure you’re seeing them. Pay attention to what you say and take note when they’re negative. Keep a daily log of negative thoughts, assumptions and conclusions. This will help you figure out where and how your negativity manifests, and that will allow you to make specific targeted goals for turning those thoughts and feelings around.
3. Switch Out A Negative Statement For A Positive One
This is going to feel weird at first, and might make you feel like you’re not being your true self. That’s fine. If you’re going to shift your natural inclinations you might need to “fake it till you make it” for a little while.
When you catch yourself about to say something negative, no matter how small or large, important or trivial, stop and think of something positive to say instead. If it’s raining and grey and your inclination is to remark that the weather is terrible, try instead remarking that it’s going to feel that much nicer when the sun returns. Small changes can add up to a big difference!
4. Actively Make The Argument For Positivity
If you’re struggling with a negative thought, or a pessimistic prediction, put it on paper. Write down the negative thought and then make columns for arguments for and against the validity of that thought.
If you’re a pessimist, it will be easy to find reasons to support a negative thought. The goal here isn’t for either side to “win” but to create a space for you to do the work of finding arguments against the negative thought. For every reason you can find in favor of your negative impulse, put in the time and effort to find a reason that negative thought isn’t valid or useful. It might be hard at first, but as you get better at it, you’ll be building the skills of an optimist.
5. Figure Out The Goals Of Pessimism
Pessimism is often accompanied by the idea that low expectations are more often met, and that by predicting failure you’re less likely to be disappointed. However, upon closer examination, this tactic often doesn’t achieve its goal. If you’re espousing pessimism in order to avoid feeling bad, are you really in touch with how you feel? Do you actually never feel hurt or disappointment? The answer is probably no.
The negativity and anxiety of pessimism is probably making it harder to handle feelings of disappointment and hurt. Instead of being able to bounce back to the next hopeful opportunity, pessimists must pile one bad feeling onto the anticipation of the next, with no reprieve in sight. You are more resilient than you think, and hope is a better reinforcement than despair.
6. Use A Model Of Positivity
Regardless of whether you have an upbeat friend you can spend more time with, you’ve certainly known someone who has a positive worldview. Think about that person, whether they’re a co-worker or a favorite character from a TV show, and imagine how they would respond in a particular situation. Then try that perspective out yourself. It might feel like a bad fit at first, but with practice you’ll find out how to make it your own.
7. Identify The Positive
The strategies above can be employed to accomplish this practice successfully. Find the positive aspect in every situation. Even the most devastating loss contains within it the opening of a new possibility or a change that could lead to positive growth. It may seem perverse at first to find the proverbial silver lining, but every culture contains ancient wisdom about exactly this practice. Finding the positive helps us move forward, and to build strong inner lives that benefit not just ourselves but our family, friends, and wider community.
One good way to do this is to ask yourself a few simple questions about an event that may at first seem overwhelmingly negative:
- Where is the positive or good part of this event?
- Where is the opportunity that has arisen within or as a result of this event?
- Where is the lesson that I can learn from this event?
Bear in mind that timing matters. You don’t have to arrive at a place of positive forward thinking immediately. Give yourself time to experience the feelings that are arising, and when you’ve regained some footing, start moving towards a positive goal.
8. Give Positive Feedback
Give others positive feedback, and do the same for yourself.
Even if someone hasn’t done a great job, find the part of it that was successful and start with giving positive feedback about that part of their work. Focusing on the positive makes everyone feel more hopeful about improving their less successful areas, and can facilitate faster growth, and better results.
The same goes when you’re evaluating yourself. This can be much harder to do than giving others positive support, but it’s just as important. When you do something well, don’t discredit that success. You might be tempted to write off your successes as “just a fluke” or “nothing special” or you might try to chalk up your good work to mere luck or the help of collaborators and colleagues. This is doing yourself a disservice.
Accept positive feedback from others, and from yourself. If someone gives you a compliment and you feel the impulse to explain that you don’t really deserve credit, resist that urge, and instead just say thank you. The same goes for when you start to feel proud of yourself. Don’t crush that feeling down, even if it brings up anxiety about disappointing yourself later by failing to repeat your results. Accept your internal positive feedback and keep moving forward.
9. Start Your Day With Positivity
The way you start your day can help you set a positive tone. Often, the first thing we do in a day can color everything else that happens, so make sure you pick the color you want! This is likely different for everyone, but as long as this first activity makes you feel good, is calming and low stress, or pumps you up for the day ahead, it’s a good choice. It might be watching an inspirational video, doing a morning workout while listening to your favorite music, or having a nice cup of herbal tea in the sun before you start your day. You deserve to make that time for yourself, and the effect on your day will make it more than worthwhile.
10. Practice Makes Positivity
Shifting your disposition isn’t something you can do with the flip of a switch. It’s going to take time and practice. Don’t be discouraged just because you continue to have negative thoughts. That doesn’t make you a failure, it just makes you human. See those moments as opportunities to keep improving, and make sure to realize that in noticing them, you are already doing the work of creating change in yourself.
Practicing positivity is the best way to create positivity, and it isn’t an all-or-nothing endeavor. Every little positive shift makes a difference, and your movement forward is not erased by negative thoughts or a bad day. You get to take your gains with you, no matter what, so keep collecting positivity, and attempting to shift your outlook.
Positive Feelings And Improved Bone Health
If you’re finishing this article and wondering what this has to do with bone health, you have probably been influenced by the tunnel-vision of the Medical Establishment. Your bones are connected to the rest of your body (they support it!) and the health of the rest of your body naturally affects your bones.
That’s why the Save Our Bones Program does more than just examine the skeletal system. It takes a holistic approach that considers the many intersecting ways that our lives, behaviors and health combine to result in strong flexible bones, or brittle fragile ones.
While the Medical Establishment strives to create drugs that ignore the incredibly complex synergy of our biological systems, the Save Our Bones Program uses every scientific tool to support and nourish bones. Those tools include everything from the water you drink to the food you eat, and the way you exercise to your attitude: the neurochemical and physical impact of your disposition.
Stop Worrying About Your Bone Loss
Join thousands of Savers from around the world who have reversed or prevented their bone loss naturally and scientifically with the Save Our Bones Program.
Start your life of increased optimism right away by recognizing the power of what you’ve learned today and acknowledging your desire to make a positive change in your life!
Till next time,
1Scheier MF, Matthews KA, Owens JF, Schulz R, Bridges MW, Magovern GJ, Carver CS. “Optimism and rehospitalization after coronary artery bypass graft surgery.” Arch Intern Med. 1999 Apr 26;159(8):829-35. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10219928
2Mikko T. Pänkäläinen,corresponding author Tuomas V. Kerola, and Jukka J. Hintikka. “Pessimism and the risk for coronary heart disease among middle-aged and older Finnish men and women: a ten-year follow-up study” BMC Cardiovasc Disord. 2015; 15: 113. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4592564/
3Susan A. Everson, George A. Kaplan, Debbie E. Goldberg, Jukka T. Salonen. “Hypertension Incidence Is Predicted by High Levels of Hopelessness in Finnish Men.” Hypertension. February 2000, Volume 35, Issue 2. Web: http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/35/2/561
4Everson SA, Goldberg DE, Kaplan GA, Cohen RD, Pukkala E, Tuomilehto J, Salonen JT. “Hopelessness and risk of mortality and incidence of myocardial infarction and cancer.” Psychosom Med. 1996;58:113–121. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8347738?access_num=8347738&link_type=MED&dopt=Abstract
5Kim ES, Hagan KA, Grodstein F, DeMeo DL, De Vivo I, Kubzansky LD. “Optimism and Cause-Specific Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study.” Am J Epidemiol. 2017 Jan 1;185(1):21-29. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27927621
6Jobin J, Wrosch C, Scheier MF. “Associations between dispositional optimism and diurnal cortisol in a community sample: when stress is perceived as higher than normal.” Health Psychol. 2014 Apr;33(4):382-91. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23668853
7Roy B, Diez-Roux AV, Seeman T, Ranjit N, Shea S, Cushman M. “Association of optimism and pessimism with inflammation and hemostasis in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA).” Psychosom Med. 2010 Feb;72(2):134-40. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20100888