I don’t remember where I heard it first because it was one of those concepts that just seemed to float around, but I definitely grew up thinking that having a positive outlook would have a powerful, diffuse effect on various aspects of one’s life, including physical health and social contentedness. Over time, I internalized this notion and even felt it play out it in my own life as I muddled through the post-recession job market, working for a temp agency with a Master’s degree in my lap.
My positivity never made me rich against all odds, but I’m pretty sure that it did help me recover quickly, emotionally and physically, from the most challenging days of that period. I made a point of cultivating it and even began to consider it a survival skill—and I’m not the only one who did. Around this time, the phenomenon of modern self-care was taking off, and at its core, the belief in the possibilities of our universe.
What Is the Latest Science on Optimism?
In even more recent years, we’ve learned fascinating things about the darker emotions in our lives, too, including the role of stress in our lives—when it’s beneficial and when it becomes a problem. And now, we have a better understanding of optimism: according to a student published in PNAS, optimistic individuals are more likely to live to at least 85 than their less sunny counterparts. The study factored out other important lifespan indicators, including health conditions, health habits, depression, social integration, and socioeconomic status.
“We wanted to consider, in the current issue, benefits of psychological resources like optimism as possible new targets for promoting healthy aging . . . the more we know about ways to promote healthy aging the better,” researcher Lewina Lee stated.
The nearly 70,000 participants were asked to answer a survey that assessed their level of optimism, such as “in uncertain times I usually expect the best” or “I usually expect to succeed in things that I do.” The study found that the most optimistic groups, on average, had an 11-15% longer lifespan that than their least optimistic counterparts. Clearly, optimism is a potent life force.
But What Exactly Is Optimism?
Clinical healthy psychologist Natalie Dattilo argues that you don’t have to be a “natural” optimist to harness the power of optimism. Optimism, she suggests, can be learned: “Just try it on, try on a different thought, attitude or mindset and play that out and just see what happens,” she says. The trait of optimism isn’t about magically avoiding the pitfalls of life—or even eliminating sadness and frustration.
“People who think in optimistic ways are still prone to stress,” she says. “They are functioning in our society, meeting demands, prone to burn out. And it’s not like negative events won’t happen.” It’s really more about the way we recant, Dattilo explains. “Resilience is our ability to bounce back, to recover . . . and what this study shows is that optimism actually plays a very big role in our ability to bounce — even if we experience setbacks.”
How to Become More Optimistic
Datillo advises challenging your negative outlook, uncovering the assumptions undergirding that negative outlook, and trying to hold a more positive outlook, a little at a time. Like any new mental habit, employing optimism may feel a bit unnatural at first. But when we approach acquiring a new skill with a growth mindset and commit to building your habit as you would a muscle (that is, a little at a time over a long period of time), your optimism can become stronger.
Also, see: how to become more optimistic! You can start practicing now.
Do you consider yourself an optimist?
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