[By Lucy Green]
Always look on the bright side of life … You won’t only feel better, you might get to live longer too, if the latest research is to be believed.
Is life a beach or a bitch? How you answer this question may reflect your outlook on life, whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic — and it may even affect your health!
Some studies show that personality traits like optimism and pessimism can affect many areas of your health and well-being. Positive thinking that typically comes with optimism is a key part of effective stress management which in turn is associated with many health benefits. If you tend to be pessimistic, don’t despair, positive thinking is a skill that can be learnt. Here’s how.
Step 1: Understanding positive thinking and self-talk
Positive thinking doesn’t mean that you keep your head in the sand and ignore life’s less pleasant situations. Positive thinking just means that you approach the unpleasantness in a more positive and productive way. In a nutshell, you think the best is going to happen, not the worst.
Positive thinking often starts with self-talk. Self-talk is the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head every day. These thoughts can be positive or negative. While some of your self-talk comes from logic and reason, others stem from misconceptions that you create because of lack of information.
If the thoughts that run through your head are mostly negative, your outlook on life is more likely pessimistic. If your thoughts are mostly positive, you’re likely an optimist — someone who practices positive thinking.
There are many proven health benefits of positive thinking. Researchers continue to explore the effects of positive thinking and optimism on health. Health benefits that positive thinking may provide include:
- Increased life span
- Lower rates of depression and distress
- Greater resistance to the common ailments such as cold
- Better psychological and physical well-being
- Reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
A huge new study in the US found that optimists were less likely than pessimists to develop coronary heart disease (CHD) and less likely to die of any cause over the course of the eight-year trial. Researchers looked at 97,253 postmenopausal women, all of whom were free of cancer and cardiovascular disease when they took personality tests at the start of the study.
When the researchers compared the most optimistic 25% of their subjects with the most pessimistic 25%, they found that out of every 10,000 optimists, 43 developed Chronic Heart Disease (CHD) and overall 46 died, while for every 10,000 pessimists there were 60 cases of CHD and 63 deaths overall. Women who scored highly for “cynical hostility” were also more likely to develop CHD or die. The study was published this week in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association.
It’s unclear why people who engage in positive thinking experience these health benefits. One theory is that having a positive outlook enables you to cope better with stressful situations, which reduces the harmful health effects of stress on your body. It’s also thought that positive and optimistic people tend to live healthier lifestyles — they get more physical activity, follow a healthier diet, and don’t smoke or drink alcohol in excess.
Step 2: Identifying negative thinking
Not sure if your self-talk is positive or negative? Here are some common forms of negative self-talk:
- Filtering. You magnify the negative aspects of a situation and filter out all of the positive ones. For example, say you had a great day at work. You completed your tasks ahead of time and were complimented for doing a speedy and thorough job. But you forgot one minor step. That evening, you focus only on your oversight and forget about the compliments you received.
- Personalizing. When something bad occurs, you automatically blame yourself. For example, you hear that an evening out with friends is cancelled, and you assume that the change in plans is because no one wanted to be around you.
- Catastrophizing. You automatically anticipate the worst. The drive-through coffee shop gets your order wrong and you automatically think that the rest of your day will be a disaster.
- Polarizing. You see things only as either all good or all bad, black or white. There is no middle ground. You feel that you have to be perfect or that you’re a total failure.
Step 3: Focusing on positive thinking
You can learn to turn negative thinking into positive thinking. The process is simple, but it does take time and practice — you’re creating a new habit, after all. Here are some ways to think and behave in a more positive and optimistic way:
- Identify areas to change. If you want to become more optimistic and engage in more positive thinking, first identify areas of your life that you typically think negatively about, whether it’s work, your daily commute or a relationship, for example. You can start small by focusing on one area to approach in a more positive way.
- Check yourself. Periodically during the day, stop and evaluate what you’re thinking. If you find that your thoughts are mainly negative, try to find a way to put a positive spin on them.
- Be open to humour. Give yourself permission to smile or laugh, especially during difficult times. Seek humour in everyday happenings. When you can laugh at life, you feel less stressed.
- Follow a healthy lifestyle. Exercise at least three times a week to positively affect mood and reduce stress. Follow a healthy diet to fuel your mind and body. And learn to manage stress.
- Surround yourself with positive people. Make sure those in your life are positive, supportive people you can depend on to give helpful advice and feedback. Negative people may increase your stress level and make you doubt your ability to manage stress in healthy ways.
- Practice positive self-talk. Start by following one simple rule: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else. Be gentle and encouraging with yourself. If a negative thought enters your mind, evaluate it rationally and respond with affirmations of what is good about you.
Here are some examples of negative self-talk and how you can apply a positive thinking twist to them.
|I’ve never done it before so I can’t.||It’s an opportunity to learn something new.|
|It’s too complicated for me!||I’ll tackle it from a different angle.|
|I don’t have the resources to do this.||Necessity is the mother of invention.|
|I’m too lazy to get this done.||I wasn’t able to fit it into my schedule but can re-examine some priorities.|
|There’s no way it will work.||I can try to make it work.|
|It’s too radical a change.||Let’s take a chance.|
|No one bothers to communicate with me.||I’ll see if I can open the channels of communication.|
|I’m not going to get any better at this.||I’ll give it another try.|
We shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that being optimistic makes people healthier. It could be that good health is what is making people optimistic in the first place, and not the other way around. Healthier people are certainly likely to be more optimistic, but studies have generally accounted for this and still found a positive result, so it doesn’t seem to be the whole story. When subjects have been followed for several decades after the original questionnaire, we can be even more confident that the bad health wasn’t there to begin with.
Perhaps our genes could also be playing a role. It might be that the same genes that confer an optimistic disposition also predispose to good health.
As things stand, it’s still unclear whether adopting a more positive outlook on life can reduce your likelihood of falling ill or dying. But it certainly won’t hurt – and it might put a smile on your face. Who could argue with that?