April 23, 2009

But the best news is, you don't have to be born an optimist, you can become one. Before you read any farther, take this quiz to find out which one you are.

Grade each statement:

Strongly agree: a

Agree: b

Feel neutral: c

Disagree: d

Strongly disagree: e

1. In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.

2. If something can go wrong for me, it will.

3. I usually feel good when thinking about my future.

4. I hardly ever expect things to go my way.

5. I rarely count on good things happening to me.

6. I expect more good things to happen to me than bad.

Your score

For questions 1, 3 and 6, give yourself 4 points for each A, 3 for B, 2 for C, 1 for D and 0 for E. For questions 2, 4 and 5, give yourself 0 points for each A, 1 for B, 2 for C, 3 for D and 4 for E. Add up your points. You'll have a score ranging from 0-24, from extreme pessimism to extreme optimism:

0-11 means you're likely to expect failure and blame yourself when things go badly. If your score was close to 0, you're a full-fledged pessimist, dwelling only on the negative and living in a very black-and-white world. If you scored closer to 11, you tend to be more pessimistic, blaming yourself, catastrophizing events.

13-24 means you're likely to expect success; when things do go badly, you typically figure out how to make it better next time. On the lower end (closer to 13), you have optimistic tendencies; if you score in the 20s, you're a strong optimist -- a problem solver who doesn't distort situations.

12 is the midpoint, or neutral, meaning you're a little of both.

An optimist or a pessimist? Why it matters

OK, so you scored 3 on the quiz. What's the big deal? Isn't it cool to be a cynical pessimist? Isn't it unrealistic and phony to be a perky optimist? An emphatic no, say a host of experts and studies. In fact, being optimistic is one of the best things you can do for your physical health. Optimism may even keep you alive longer:

* A recent study tracking 839 male and female patients from the Mayo Clinic found that the pessimists (determined by personality testing) had a 19 percent higher mortality rate than optimists.

* Another study at University of California at Los Angeles discovered that unrealistically optimistic HIV-positive men (those who expected to get better despite all evidence to the contrary) lived an average of nine months longer than those with a more realistic (and, thus, more pessimistic) view of their medical condition.

* A new study of 112 college students suggests that pessimists catch more colds than optimists. Conducted by Wilkes University and a Veteran's Administration medical center in New Jersey, the study showed that those who were classified as pessimists had lower levels of immunoglobulin A, an antibody that fights colds and other illnesses.

"Learned" optimism can prevent depression

Optimism -- essentially, the inclination to put a positive spin on life's actions and events -- hasn't always been in vogue, psychologically speaking. Throughout much of the 20th century, mental-health professionals agreed with Sigmund Freud that optimism was an illusion that kept the masses happy and only those who were coldly realistic were psychologically balanced. At the same time -- and perhaps not coincidentally -- psychiatrists and therapists focused almost exclusively on dysfunction, researching and treating everything from depression to panic disorders while paying little attention to the mentally healthy and what made them that way.

But in the last couple of decades, researchers have begun to discover that there is a definite relationship between pessimism and poor health and, conversely, optimism and good health. "The link between optimism and health is now solidly established," says Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and the author of many studies in the field. And, as a result of this link, "positive" psychology is now the trend in both research and practice.

Simply put, positive psychology attempts to discover what works (an optimistic outlook, for instance) and how to develop it, rather than concentrate on what isn't working. "In the past we were too preoccupied with repairing damage, when our focus should be on building strength and resilience," says positive-psychology advocate Martin Seligman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and former president of the American Psychological Association.

Seligman believes that learning how to promote joy and happiness will, in turn, lessen negative feelings and depression. Because, according to him and other positive psychologists, negative thinking is itself the disease -- rather than just a symptom of depression.

Living in denial can be a good thing

Why, specifically, optimists are physically healthier than pessimists is still a question that psychologists ponder. "We do know that optimists experience less stress, and therefore suffer less from stress physiology, which impacts the immune system," says Peg Baim, M.S., N.P., an associate in medicine at Harvard Medical School who teaches physicians how to help patients via optimism, humor and cognitive restructuring. Further, Baim adds, because optimists are excellent problem solvers, they're more likely to seek solutions that lead to good health. "So if you get a heart attack, you're probably more likely to exercise afterward," she says.

This all sounds great, you may be thinking, but if you really do have a crisis going on, putting it into a favorable light can seem like a kind of denial. And isn't denial bad for the psyche? Not necessarily, says the research. A recent review article by UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor, Ph.D., who has spent the last 20 years studying optimism and pessimism in breast-cancer and AIDS patients, found that even unrealistic optimism (like believing your cancer will go into remission even when there's little chance of it) is linked to better health.

Psychologists stress that while optimism is important to your health, it is by no means the only factor involved. "If you have strep throat, penicillin is going to improve your health more than optimism will," Peterson explains. So a smart-thinking optimist would seek medical assistance and treat the strep throat -- and then have faith that the next time she is exposed to a contagious bug, her optimism-enhanced immune system will fight it off.

Although there is still debate about whether optimism or pessimism is an inherited trait (some experts say that it is 25-50 percent genetic), the argument is largely moot. Here's why: The experts agree that even the most die-hard pessimists have the ability to build optimism -- and to improve their physical and emotional health while they're at it.

Are you a negative thinker?

Here are eight of the common thought habits pessimists share. Recognize yourself? If so, there's good news. You can change any of these with a conscious effort.

Everything's your fault. This is called personalization, says Harvard's Peg Baim, M.S., N.P., and it's the source of all guilt. If your child fails a test, do you think it's because you're a bad parent?

You see black or white. A.k.a. all-or-nothing thinking. "If your performance falls short, you're a total failure," Baim says.

To you, it's catastrophic! You magnify everything that goes wrong to the point of catastrophe.

You dwell on negative minutiae and overlook the positive big picture. You're at a friend's wedding, but all you think of is how you look with the three pounds you've gained.

You -- and everyone else -- must achieve perfection. With this kind of thinking, everything has the potential to become a failure.

You are unable to accept a compliment. Does self-deprecation sound familiar?

You seek approval a lot. When all the people in your life do not approve of what you're doing, you're miserable.

You over-generalize. An isolated negative event is sweeping disappointment. Your boss is mean and nasty? All bosses are mean and nasty.

Did you score low on the optimism quiz?

Here, then, are seven steps to help make you more of an optimist -- and enhance your emotional and physical health.

1. Surround yourself with positive people. "It's hard to be an optimist in a room of pessimists -- and hard to be a pessimist in a room of optimists," says the University of Michigan's Christopher Peterson, Ph.D.

2. When facing a problem, don't do anything until you think of three solutions. Commit to finding three solutions to your problem, rather than sit around ruminating about it. Chances are that one may work. "This takes you past the first two, which are often the extremes," says Harvard's Peg Baim, M.S., N.P. "And it moves you past all-or-nothing thinking, so you can find a more creative, successful solution."

3. Try to do the things you feel you really can accomplish, and allow yourself to feel good when you do. "To do this, you need a certain realism," says Peterson. If you're just getting in shape for the first time, don't set a goal of running a 10k next month -- walk a 5k instead. Your achievement will be encouraging, and then you can start training for a 5k run and tackle the 10k later.

4. Make meaning out of disappointment. Even dismal failure brings something positive, from a learning experience to a chance to develop humility. A disastrous vacation, for instance, will give you plenty of funny stories -- not to mention ideas for how to make your next vacation better.

5. Eliminate negative thoughts. Baim says pessimists automatically turn to about 20 cognitive distortions, which are irrational negative thought habits (see "Are You a Negative Thinker?" at left). Watch for those in your daily life. "If, for instance, something goes wrong and you always think it's your fault, start editing that automatic response," she says. Analyze your role in the problem, and then look for all the other factors as well.

6. Focus on the task. When something goes wrong, figure out what specific things you can do to make it better. "[Tennis pro] Billie Jean King used to say, 'When I lose a match, it's only research,' " Baim says. "That's the voice of an optimist."

7. Get help when you need it. If you can't shake pessimism or negative thinking, seek professional help, including cognitive therapy. It'll give you specific guidance and practice in changing your unfavorable thoughts and beliefs into positive ones. "We know it works," Peterson says.