Honestly, I tend to tune out when people talk about the power of positive thinking. The idea that being optimistic can solve all your problems never really rang true to me. Surely it should go in the other direction, that you become more optimistic by solving your problems, no?
Still, one of the lessons life is good at driving home is that in the long run, you’re probably going to be put in a lot of situations where you don’t have much control over what happens, so the best you can try for is having a say in how you react to what happens.
In aggregate, these situations have helped me see that even though staying positive can be hard work, it’s an important goal to aspire to. To put it another way, optimism is a really useful skill to have.
Although it took me a while to realize this, it turns out it’s not a brilliant, original insight. A lot of people understand that looking at the glass half full isn’t just a cliché. I mean, it is a cliché, but like a lot of cliches, it’s not just a cliché – it contains some important truth.
And some of the people who understand this best are scientists. Over the last few years, a whole line of psychology research has sprung up looking at what optimism is, where it comes from, and how it affects people’s lives.
So in my quest to understand the power of positive thinking – or, as I prefer, the necessity of positive thinking – I looked through a bunch of the recent studies that have been done on optimism. Here are some interesting things I found.
1. Optimism can save your life
Incidentally, this is a big reason optimism is such a hot research topic. Optimism is really good for your health. This goes back to how intertwined mental health and physical health are – making one better often improves the other.
To give one example, being more optimistic makes you less likely to die of coronary heart disease. There’s more research that needs to be done on why this is, but it appears that optimism both changes your actual physiological response to stress and also leads you to make healthier choices (like not smoking).
Bottom line: score 1 for the power of positive thinking.
2. We’re all optimists
One of the things about people is that we’re all basically wired to keep going no matter what happens to us.
One study looked at this fundamental human optimism in the context of sports. Specifically, it asked people to rate how how many game they thought different NFL teams would win in the upcoming season.
People overestimated the number of wins teams they liked would get and underestimated the number of wins teams they didn’t like would get. Along the same lines, reporters tended to overestimate the number of wins for the teams they were assigned to cover. The researchers took this result to mean that people are generally more prone to optimistic interpretations of uncertainty, at least in the realm of sports.
If you think about it, this human tendency is good news for all of, and it’s especially good news for professional sports – there might be many teams that simply had no fans if people were realistic about assessing their teams’ chances!
3. Pessimism is not the opposite of optimism
Paradoxically, lack of optimism is not the same as pessimism. A 2015 twin study found that optimism and pessimism are more “two distinct systems” than “polar opposites.”
So why does it matter? Because while both optimism and pessimism influence how you respond to stress, they do so in slightly different ways.
Specifically, another 2015 study found that optimism may be more related to your physiological response to stress, pessimism more to your psychological response. In the study, optimism (but not pessimism) influenced how quickly people’s levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) stabilized following a stress test. Meanwhile, pessimism (but not optimism) affected how psychologically difficult the test seemed to people.
4. Optimism protects against anxiety and depression, but in different ways
Optimism affects how people react to stressful life events. Specifically, people who are more optimistic are at less risk for anxiety and depression after something stressful happens to them.
This idea is intuitive enough, but in 2015 researchers followed it up by asking: optimistic how?
Apparently, the kind of optimism that reduces the risk of depression is different than the kind that protects against anxiety. Specifically, having positive expectations for the future is what counteracts depression while a having a sense of being invulnerable is what lowers anxiety.
5. Optimism matters less as you get older
Here’s some optimism research that will make you a pessimist: even if you’re blessed with an irrepressible knack for seeing the glass as half full, it matters less and less as you get older.
In particular, some research published in March looked at how optimism stops stressful events from giving rise to depressive symptoms in older adults.
What emerged was that younger older adults (yes, you read that correctly) got the most benefits from optimism while older older adults experienced optimism’s protective effects against depression less strongly.
The glass-half-full interpretation of this study is that there’s good news for pessimists here: the older you get, the less your negative outlook matters! Of course, if you’re a pessimist, you probably don’t care, because you know something bad will happen anyway.
How do you stay positive? I’m optimistic that you’ll comment below.