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How optimism benefits your health

A positive outlook can reduce your risk of heart disease
 A woman and young girl gardening in a greenhouse

The pessimist may be right in the end, but the optimist has more fun along the way. That positive mindset may be doing more than just providing a bit of fun. Optimism can improve your health too.

We’ve known for a long time that mental and physical states are connected, but the mental side of things often gets overlooked. Maybe this is because we don’t quite understand how the brain works like we do other parts of the body.

An optimist is someone who has a positive outlook on life. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re always happy or that you’re a full-blown success. Pessimists have a negative outlook but can experience joy and can also be successful. At the same time, someone who may be considered at the bottom of society’s success ladder can be optimistic.

Optimism can keep you from an early grave

A positive mindset is associated with better health and a lower chance of disease. A review of 15 studies with over 200,000 participants found a 35% lower chance of getting heart disease and a 14% lower chance of early death in people who were optimists. People who are optimistic also have better results following surgery, with fewer complications requiring hospital readmission. This may be related to the finding that optimists have better coping skills when dealing with stress and setbacks.

From these studies it’s hard to know whether the positive outlook makes a person healthy, or if being healthy leads to a positive outlook.

It could come down to the fact that people who are positive engage in healthy behaviours. They’re more likely to eat well, exercise and not smoke.

Being optimistic is associated with biological risk factors such as lower blood sugar and cholesterol. In addition, that positive thinking may boost your immunity and reduce your chances of infection and cancer. Even after considering healthy behaviours, optimistic people had a 15% longer lifespan and 50% greater chance of living past 85 than people with a negative outlook. So something besides behaviour is at work.

Train yourself to be optimistic

While we might think people who are optimistic are born that way, that’s not the case. You can train yourself to become optimistic. One such method, called the Best Possible Self, resulted in improved optimism just after one session. All people had to do was spend five minutes each day imagining the best possible future for themselves.

Other ways include keeping a journal to track the things you are thankful for. You can do this in the morning to start your day on a positive note, or in the evening to recount all the good things that happened that day. If you do have negative thoughts, write them down too, and write down why you have them.

Your mental outlook is also contagious. Hanging out with people who are negative can bring you down. Likewise, being around people who are optimistic can lift your spirits and instill a brighter view on life. So try to spend time with other positive people and ask them how they look at life.

Two people can look at the same glass of water and see different things based on their outlook. Charles Swindoll captured this well when he said, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”

Scott LearDr. Scott Lear is a leading researcher in the prevention and management of heart disease. He holds the Pfizer/Heart and Stroke Foundation Chair in Cardiovascular Prevention Research at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, and he is a professor in the faculty of health sciences and the department of biomedical physiology and kinesiology at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Lear also lives with heart disease himself. Follow his blog at drscottlear.com.

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