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The Health Benefits of Being an Optimist vs. a Pessimist

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Most people fall into one of two camps: the eternally upbeat Pollyannas, or the negative Nancys who tend to expect the worst. Turns out, that perspective could affect more than just how other people relate to you—it could actually influence your health: The most optimistic people are twice as likely to have good heart health compared to their pessimistic counterparts, according to a new study in the journal Health Behavior & Policy Review. The study looked at 5,000 adults and found that optimists were more likely to eat a healthy diet, have a healthy body mass index, not smoke, and exercise regularly than their pessimistic counterparts. They also had healthier blood pressure, blood sugar, and total cholesterol levels.

Previous studies also show that cancer patients with positive attitudes tend to have better outcomes, optimists have more satisfying relationships, and those who look on the bright side are less likely to get sick with the cold or flu than Debbie Downers.

So is it hopeless for pessimists? Not quite—there are health perks that comes from a less-than rosy outlook. Here’s how your attitude may influence your health, and what you can do to maximize your point of view. 

Pros of Pessimism
There’s something to be said if you have a not-so Pollyannaish view of the world. Research by psychologists at Wellesley College suggests that pessimism may actually better equip us for dealing with stress. Using what they dub “defensive pessimism”—setting low expectations for an anxiety-provoking event, such as giving a presentation—can help you feel less frazzled. The reason? You allow yourself to think through all of the possible pitfalls that so you better prepare in order to dodge them versus being caught off-guard if something goes awry.

And pessimists are about 10 percent more likely to have better health in the near future than optimists, according to a German study. Researchers say pessimists may be more likely to think about what could go wrong in their future and be better prepared or take preventive measures, whereas optimists may not give those possibilities as much consideration. (Plus: The Power of Negative Thinking: 5 Reasons Why Positivity Gets It Wrong.)

Optimists’ Prime
So who ultimately has the edge? Those who are able to see a silver lining likely have a leg up, says Rosalba Hernandez, Ph.D., a social worker at the University of Illinois and author of the recent study linking optimism and heart health. “People who are happier with their life are more likely to do things that benefit their health such as eating well, exercising, and maintaining a healthy weight, because they’re more likely to believe that good things will come out of those actions,” she says. Pessimists, however, may not see the point if they believe things will end up badly.

And, while there’s something to be said for defensive pessimism, that doesn’t necessarily mean that optimists walk blindly into daunting situations. “If something goes wrong, optimists have better skills for coping with stressful life situations,” Hernandez says. “They tend to believe that when one door closes another door opens, which is a buffer against stress. Pessimists, however, may be more likely to catastrophize, so if something bad happens it can lead them down into a spiral of negativity.” This, in turn, could take a toll on their overall health, since stress and pessimism is associated with depression.

Cultivate a Happier Outlook
Fortunately, Hernandez says it’s possible for anyone to brighten his or her disposition. (Why Do You See the Glass as Half Full? The Answer May Be in Your Genes.) In fact, researchers say about 40 percent of our wellbeing comes from behaviors we engage in—and can therefore control, she adds. These three strategies can help you foster a happier and healthier outlook. (And try these 20 Ways to Get Happy (Almost) Instantly!)

1. Write more thank you notes (or e-mails). “Writing letters of gratitude helps you focus on the positive and the blessings you have on your life,” Hernandez says. “Sometimes people focus on what others have and they don’t, which creates stress and unhappiness. Gratitude helps you see the positive even amidst stressful situations.”

2. Spend more time doing things you love. “When you do something you enjoy, you enter a state of flow where time passes quickly and everything else melts away,” Hernandez says. This, in turn, helps you feel happier overall, which makes you more likely to see the good in yourself and in the world.

3. Share good news with others. Did you receive positive feedback from your manager? Score a free latte? Don’t keep it to yourself. “Any time you share something good with someone else it amplifies it and makes you relive it,” Hernandez says. So when bad things happen, having shared the good stuff with others makes it easier for you to call those events to mind so you’re less likely to fall down a rabbit hole of negativity.