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Is Optimism Good For You?

optimism, optimistic
Studies indicate being optimistic is good for your health. (Image credit: withGod | <a href="http://shutterstock.com">Shutterstock</a>)

Several studies suggest optimists live longer and enjoy better health than pessimists. The real mystery is why.

Is it optimism that makes people healthy, or do healthy people understandably have a brighter outlook?

Among the findings of various studies:

  • Highly optimistic people have significantly lower death rates.
  • Optimistic coronary bypass patients are half as likely as pessimists to require re-hospitalization.
  • People with positive emotions have lower blood pressure.
  • The most pessimistic men are more than twice as likely to develop heart disease compared with the most optimistic.

To get a better handle on things, scientists have adjusted their analyses in recent years to account for pre-existing medical conditions. Studies that made these adjustments found that existing illnesses don't negate the benefits of optimism, according to the May 2008 issue of Harvard Men’s Health Watch.

In one example of how humans keep their spirits up no matter what, researchers found older people suffering various illnesses still said they thought they were aging well. Another study found that the sick and disabled don't wallow in misery as is commonly believed. Optimism, another study found, triggers activity in the same brain area that is known to malfunction among the depressed.

But why is optimism so beneficial?

Perhaps optimists enjoy better health and longer lives because they lead healthier lifestyles, build stronger social support networks, and get better medical care, the Health Watch article suggests.

Also, stress is known to kill, releasing hormones that cause deterioration of everything from your gums to your heart. Optimists might have lower levels of stress hormones.

Heredity could play a role, too. It is possible that genes predispose some people to optimism, and that the same genes affect health and longevity.

More study is needed, the Health Watch article contends, because it’s likely that multiple mechanisms are involved.

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Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at Space.com starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.