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Accentuate the positive

MagazineApril 2009 (Vol. 20 Issue 1)Accentuate the positive

People who are optimistic-who tend to believe, expect or hope that things will turn out well-are not only happier than their pessimistic count-erparts, but healthier, too

People who are optimistic-who tend to believe, expect or hope that things will turn out well-are not only happier than their pessimistic count-erparts, but healthier, too. They are sick less often and generally live longer than those whose outlook on life is less positive.

In a study of more than 7000 subjects, researchers found that those who scored high on optimism in personality tests in the 1960s were much more likely to be alive than pessimists 40 years later. Participants were classified as either optimists, pessimists or mixed, based on their Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) score. Their 'explan-atory style'-the way they interpreted certain life events-was a powerful predictor of how long they lived (Mayo Clin Proc, 2006; 81: 1541-4).

These results were consistent with those from previous studies. Examin-ing the medical records of over 800 people, a different team of researchers found that those who tend to blame themselves for negative events, believe that such events will continue indefinitely and let such events affect many aspects of their lives had a 19-per-cent increased risk of death. This translates to roughly 15 years of life lost due to a pessimistic outlook (Mayo Clin Proc, 2000; 75: 140-3).

Optimism, on the other hand, was associated with a 50-per-cent lower risk of mortality (Mayo Clin Proc, 2002; 77: 748-53). It also appears to help fend off disease. Indeed, a 10-year study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that people who look on the bright side of life have less than half the relative risk of heart disease as do pessimists-as big a difference as between smokers and non-smokers (Psychosom Med, 2001; 63: 910-6).

Other studies show that pessimists are ill more often than optimists, and generally have poorer physical health (Cognit Ther Res, 1988; 12: 119-32; J PersSoc Psychol, 1988; 55: 23-7). Conversely, optimists report a better quality of life than pessimists, and are more physically and mentally fit (Mayo Clin Proc, 2002; 77: 748-53).

Positively healthy

But how does optimism foster longer and healthier lives? One explanation is that optimistic people don't become depressed, a known risk factor for mortality (Mayo Clin Proc, 2006; 81: 1541-4).

They may also have more active coping styles when faced with stressor disease, being more likely to believe they can become healthy, and so are more inclined to engage in healthy behaviours and to seek medical advice (Dossey L. The Extraordinary Healing Powers of Ordinary Things. New York: Harmony Books, 2006). Indeed, when optimists become ill, they are more likely than pessi-mists to take active steps to combat their illness (Behav Res Ther, 1990; 28: 243-8).

However, the most interesting explanation is biology. As American psychologist Martin Seligman suggests, the brain registers optimism and makes changes via humoral, chemical and neural pathways that affect cellular function throughout the body and all of its systems. In fact, a positive attitude is associated with stronger immunity and lower levelsof the stress hormone cortisol (J Pers Soc Psychol, 1998; 74: 1646-55; Br J Health Psychol, 2005; 10: 467-84).

How exactly does the mind affect the body? According to US biologist Candace Pert, author of Molecules of Emotion (New York: Scribner, 1997), the key is neuropeptides-the means by which all cells in the body interact. This includes brain-to-brain, brain-to-body, body-to-body and body-to-brain messenging.

"The chemicals that are running our body and our brain are the same chemicals that are involved in emotion," says Pert. "And that says to me that . . . we'd better pay more attention to emotions with respect to health."

Joanna Evans

Learning optimism

- Know your ABCDE. Says psychologist Martin Seligman, we must substitute our habitual behaviours with more adaptive, positive responses (Dossey L.The Extraordinary Healing Powers of Ordinary Things. New York: Harmony Books, 2006):

- A Adversity: imagine an everyday adversity-for example, someone else has nipped into the parking space you were waiting for

- B Belief: identify the thoughts and beliefs you have about this situation-such as 'This is just typical' or 'This always happens to me'

- C Consequences: imagine the consequences of these beliefs-such as honking your horn or swearing at the other driver

- D Disputation: analyze the situation and engage in a self-dialogue-for example, 'I don't own the parking spot' or 'Others are available'

- E Energization: seek an optimistic perspective-for example, 'The driver of the other car was elderly and needed that space more than me' or 'Giving it up is an act of kindness and I feel better for doing that'.

- Keep a journal and jot down any negative thoughts you have. Try to replace them with more positive feelings.

- Give yourself due credit when something positive happens in your life. Think of all the ways you contributed, both directly and indirectly, to make the event occur.

- Don't beat yourself up when something negative happens. Think of the external factors that could have contributed to the event, and remember that every failure can be a helpful learning experience.

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