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Why Be Optimistic?  The Personal Benefits of Optimism

by Victor Perton

If optimistic, you will feel healthier.  An optimistic spirit can bring significant benefits, including happiness, joy, active longevity, better health including lower risks of cardiovascular disease, better sleep, greater resilience, stronger relationships and increased self-mastery. 

A recent OECD Study on Social and Emotional Skills in schools found, “Emotional stability skills are found to be the most predictive of mental health. Optimism has the highest relation to life satisfaction scores"

Optimism may help you live longer.  

Research by several leading American universities and centers, have established a very strong link between optimism and longevity.  As Dr Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution said, “The link between optimism and longevity is strong.”

Why?

It is believed that optimistic people are better able to balance their emotions more effectively and that they more easily bounce back from some of the many stresses that life offers.

Optimism is strongly linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular events.   A 2018 study by the American College of Cardiology attributes this in part to the fact that ”Optimists persevere by using problem-solving and planning strategies to manage stressors.” 

A 2019 University of Illinois study shows people who are the most optimistic tend to be better sleepers.  Again, as the lead researcher Professor Rosalba Hernandez said, "Optimists are more likely to engage in active problem-focused coping and to interpret stressful events in more positive ways, reducing worry and ruminative thoughts when they're falling asleep and throughout their sleep cycle…Dispositional optimism—the belief that positive things will occur in the future—has emerged as a psychological asset of particular salience for disease-free survival and superior health.”

The Resilience Project’s Founder, Hugh van Cuylenburg, says “An optimist is less likely to die from infection, cancer, heart disease, stroke and respiratory disease. Optimists are also likely to enjoy better levels of mental health. Science shows optimists are significantly more successful than pessimists in aversive events and when unforeseen circumstances get in the way of achieving important life goals.”

Professor Dianne Vella-Brodrick puts it well, “When it comes to health, positive psychology goes beyond the idea that wellness is simply the absence of illness and instead looks at the body as a complete system. Along with being disease-free – indeed, research shows that being optimistic is linked to improved heart health, – positive health is defined by less frequent and briefer ailments, greater recuperative ability and rapid wound healing. What’s more, people who experience positive emotions are more likely to live longer than people who are less happy (but not depressed)."

Optimism helps you function better as a leader.  In my work with the Australian Leadership Project, it’s clear that optimistic leaders have a clear advantage in the Australian culture and beyond.

I recently had the opportunity to interview the global leader of positive psychology Professor Martin Seligman on what makes him optimistic. 

On this point, Martin says, “The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.”

In another study, social psychologists Lise Solberg Nes and Suzanne Segerstrom found that optimists were more likely to take charge and find ways to solve their problems than pessimists were.  They chose coping strategies such as seeking out emotional support, drawing on spiritual resources, or just becoming more accepting of their situation. They also chose not to run away from their problems.

Optimism is the underpinning for innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity.  These callings require resilience, experimentation and the understanding that failed experiments are on the pathway to success.

The recently retired head of the Australian Prime Minister’s Department Dr Martin Parkinson  put this well when he told me, “Optimism drives curiousity which in turn fosters innovation and invention. So whatever the challenges we face, it’s better to tackle them with an optimistic bent, confident that nothing is insurmountable given enough will and effort.”

"We know why optimists do better than pessimists. The answer lies in the differences between the coping strategies they use. Optimists are not simply being Pollyannas; they're problem solvers who try to improve the situation. And if it can't be altered, they're also more likely than pessimists to accept that reality and move on. Physically, they're more likely to engage in behaviors that help protect against disease and promote recovery from illness. They're less likely to smoke, drink, and have poor diets, and more likely to exercise, sleep well, and adhere to rehab programs. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to deny, avoid, and distort the problems they confront, and dwell on their negative feelings. It's easy to see now why pessimists don't do so well compared to optimists."

Psychologist Michael F. Scheier in an interview in The Atlantic


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