I have heard people rant and rave and bellow,
That we're done and we might as well be dead,
But I'm only a cock-eyed optimist,
And I can't get it into my head
-- "South Pacific" (Musical), 1949
We all know a certain type of person -- we can see them coming down the hall from 100 yards away. They have an electric cord coming out of their torso with the plug tightly coiled in their right hand. They hope to plug into you and suck out all the positive energy they can. When I see them heading toward me, I usually duck into a patient room or laundry closet. Unfortunately, they may not realize their pessimistic and cynical attitudes are not only bad for their health but may eventually kill them.
The Basis of Optimism
As we struggle through a bad economy, multiple wars and uncivil political discussions it may not seem like it, but optimism still holds sway over pessimism. Optimism is the inclination toward hope, and it determines how we come to terms with our present, future and past events. An optimist believes that positive events are more likely to occur than negative events, and that those positive events are more likely to happen to him and the negative ones to others. He knows that there are all kinds of bad diseases, but he believes that they are more likely to happen to other people.
Tali Sharot, in her book "The Optimism Bias," states that optimism is highly resilient and may be hard wired from birth. She believes people are more optimistic than realistic. Think about that. Despite the often-quoted statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce, most people don't stand at the marriage altar and suppose that those statistics apply to them. The same is true for the chances of losing your job, getting cancer or predicting how long you will live. Sharot calls the belief that the future will be better than the past, the "optimism bias."
Optimism and Health
Stroke prevention typically focuses on controlling our blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and diabetes, but our attitude seems to also make a difference. A recent study published in Stroke looked at 6,044 people who were part of the Health and Retirement study. During a 2-year period, 88 of these people had a stroke. All of the participants were administered a test called the LOT-R, which measures a person's optimism and pessimism. Typical questions include, "In uncertain times, I usually expect the best," or "If something can go wrong for me, it will." The authors looked at dispositional optimism, which is the expectation that more good things than bad things will happen in the future. The study suggested that optimism had a protective effect against having a stroke -- optimists had fewer strokes than pessimists.
Previous studies have also suggested the health benefit of optimism. A 2009 study published in Circulation looked at 97,253 women who were tested for optimism and a cynical hostile attitude toward others. The most cynical and hostile women had a higher incidence of coronary heart disease and vascular death, while optimistic women had lower rates. Once again, being an optimist can have a protective effect, while being a pessimist can be detrimental to your health. This study is keeping in tune with the data on Type-A personalities, where hostility is also a lethal trait.
Another study tracked 6,958 students at the University of North Carolina from the mid 1960s to 2006. The pessimistic individuals had higher death rates and were more likely to utilize medical services and develop depression and poor physical health. Over a 40-year period, the death rate was 42 percent higher amongst the most pessimistic group.
The Chicken or the Egg
At an early age, we are confronted with the puzzling question, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Similarly, we must ask whether being optimistic leads to better health or whether people with healthy lifestyles are more optimistic because they feel better? Others have suggested it is easier to be optimistic if you have a higher socioeconomic status, are better educated and are in shape and not obese. If we are "hard wired" for optimism, what can we do to avoid the "toxicity" of pessimism? If the glass is half empty, how do you fill the other half?
The answer is still out as to whether you can turn a pessimist into an optimist, or at least change their "habitual" way of thinking, but in light of the health data, you should make a concerted effort. In his 1990 book "Learned Optimism," Martin Seligman suggested people could change their false conceptions by challenging and disputing their beliefs and developing a realistic approach to the consequences of those beliefs. Others have suggested lifestyle changes like relaxation techniques, more sleep, a healthier lifestyle and more time with friends as keys to a more optimistic take on life.
Pessimism can be bad for your health, and it could lead to heart disease and strokes. You may not be able turn to yourself into a whistling, wide-eyed optimist, but it is worth the effort to shed yourself of cynical hostility.
Follow Richard C. Senelick, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RichardSenelick