Optimism and health – Staying positive to stay healthy

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“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” This proverbial phrase may sound cliché, but there is wisdom that can be extracted from this saying. When it comes to health and longevity, for instance, optimism may confer significant advantages over pessimism. A Dutch study that examined elderly men and women (aged 65-85 years) over a nine-year period showed that those individuals with the highest level of optimism, compared with the lowest, had a significantly lower likelihood of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality (Giltay, Geleijnse, Zitman, Hoekstra, & Schouten, 2004). Other research has also validated the findings of this study (Brummet, Helms, Dahlstrom, & Siegler, 2006; Maruta, Colligan, Malinchoc, & Offord, 2002). Given the benefits of optimism, it is important to understand the ways by which a positive disposition influences health.

Firstly, having a positive outlook may directly affect immune system function. A study performed at Carnegie Mellon University tested resistance to the common cold in relation to having positive emotional styles (PES) or negative emotional styles (NES) among healthy individuals aged 18 to 54 (Cohen, Doyle, Turner, Alper, & Skoner, 2003). The research indicated that a higher score in positive emotional style decreased the probability of developing a cold, in a dose-response relationship, regardless of pre-challenge virus-specific antibodies, virus type, age, sex, education, race, body mass, and season. Although positive emotional style as measured by vigor, well-being, and calmness is not synonymous with optimism, the two concepts have been shown to be strong correlates. Thus, a positive attitude may improve immune function (Cohen, Cuneyt, Doyle, Treanor, & Turner, 2006).

Positivity has also been associated with changes in blood chemistry that directly influence health. For instance, dispositional optimism has been shown to reduce several inflammatory markers and blood clotting factors such as interleukin-6, C – reactive protein, fibrinogen, and homocysteine after adjusting for sociodemographic characteristics, depression, cynical distrust, behaviors, hypertension, body mass index, and diabetes (Roy et al., 2010). Increased levels of these blood components have been implicated in coronary heart disease; therefore, optimism may support cardiovascular health. In addition, dispositional optimism may buffer the negative effects of stress on cortisol production, blood pressure, and blood lipids (i.e. cholesterol and triglycerides) (Agarwal, Gupta, Singhal, & Bajpai, 1997; Boehm, Williams, Rimm, Ryff, & Kubzansky, 2013; Jobin, Wrosch, & Scheier, 2014; Raikkonen, Matthews, Flory, Owens, & Gump, 1999). Imbalances in these indicators of stress have also been linked to cardiovascular disease (Fraser et al., 1999), so it follows that optimism could serve a preventative role by attenuating the negative stress response.

Furthermore, a positive attitude can influence an individual’s behavior which may or may not be conducive to health. A study in 2007 that examined community-dwelling elderly Dutch men sought to determine the connection between dispositional optimism, diet, and lifestyle (Giltay, Geleignse, Zitman, Buijsse, & Kromhout, 2007). The study found that individuals with greater dispositional optimism exhibited more physical activity, less smoking, greater fruit and vegetable intake, and more consumption of whole-grain bread. These associations were consistent after adjusting for age, education, living arrangement, self-rated health, cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, cancer, body mass index, and total caloric intake. This finding suggests that optimism supports health indirectly by influencing healthy behavioral choices.

In conclusion, current research indicates that an optimistic personality supports health directly, by creating change at the physiological level, as well as indirectly, by shaping lifestyle and behaviors. When discussing the relationship between positivity and health, it is crucial to recognize that, regardless of biological influence, optimism is not a fixed personality trait, but a choice in perspective.




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Geralt (Photographer). (2014). Glass [Photograph], Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/glass-cognac-smoke-full-empty-300558/

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