While a series of studies have found that optimism is associated with better health than pessimism, the reason for the association has been obscure.
The May issue of Harvard Men’s Health Watch explores the topic and proposes possible reasons for this connection.
Published studies have reported that optimism influences health. Among the findings:
• Optimistic coronary bypass patients were only half as likely as pessimists to require re-hospitalization.
• Highly pessimistic men were three times more likely to develop hypertension.
• People with positive emotions had lower blood pressures.
• In one study, the most pessimistic men were more than twice as likely to develop heart disease compared with the most optimistic.
These results argue persuasively that optimism is good for health. But people who are healthy are likely to have a brighter outlook than people who are ill, so perhaps optimism is actually the result of good health instead of the other way around.
To counter this argument, scientists have adjusted their analyses to account for pre-existing medical conditions. The studies that made these adjustments found that existing illnesses did not tarnish the benefits of optimism.
One explanation is behavioral. It is possible that optimists enjoy better health and longer lives because they lead healthier lifestyles, build stronger social support networks, and get better medical care.
In addition, optimism itself may have biological benefits, such as lower levels of stress hormones and less inflammation.
Finally, heredity may explain some of the link. It is possible that genes predispose some people to optimism, and that the same genes affect health and longevity.
The Harvard Men’s Health Watch suggests that more study is needed because it’s likely that multiple mechanisms are involved.
Source: Harvard Men’s Health Watch