If you tend to see the proverbial glass as half empty instead of half full, you may want to rethink your position. Looking on the bright side and expecting good things to happen may have a positive effect on your physical health. An optimistic outlook on life may reduce your cardiovascular disease risk, lower blood pressure and improve overall health and longevity. It can also reduce sensitivity to pain and may help people manage chronic pain more easily.
You may be skeptical or cautiously optimistic about this. How can simple optimism lead to good health? The answer is still not entirely clear, but scientists are slowly uncovering the biological details. They’ve learned that the body’s response to stress may be an important factor.
When the body is stressed, it sends biological messengers called stress hormones into the bloodstream to tell different organs to respond in various ways. One of the major stress hormones is cortisol. When cortisol is high, the body responds by making unhealthy amounts of certain substances (such as cholesterol) that can harm the heart. These substances may damage and cause inflammation in the blood vessels. Inflammation may also lead to more damage in the circulatory system. This unfavorable chain of events may increase the risk of heart disease.
People who look on the bright side may be more likely to have markers of good health—including lower stress hormone levels—even when they face stressful situations. One study found rats with pessimistic behavior traits had more inflammation than their optimistic counterparts. Lower cortisol and inflammation levels may be due to decreased activity of the fight-or-flight nervous response, although more research is needed.
Motivation may also play a role in boosting the health of optimists. People who think positively may be more motivated and tend to make more of an effort in social interactions than those who are pessimistic. This can lead to healthier social connections and an increase in beneficial behaviors such as exercising regularly and following a healthy diet. The motivational aspects of optimism (or pessimism) may also affect a person’s behavioral response to stress.
December 21 is “Look on the bright side” day. Try a visualization exercise to boost your optimism. It may have a positive effect on your overall health.
Audrey A. Vasauskas, PhD, is an associate professor of physiology at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine. She is a former volunteer editor for the I Spy Physiology blog.