Optimism and Health

Benefits of Optimism

                Most of us understand that maintaining a positive perspective helps in accomplishing difficult tasks, but how does this frame of mind directly influence us? We know that failing to remain positive when facing a challenge may lead us to give up due to a lack of positive expectations about our current situation, but optimism provides specific benefits for our psychological and physical health. “Optimism … has been found to be negatively correlated with depression, anxiety, anger, perception of daily hassles, physical symptoms, and job burnout, and positively correlated with life satisfaction, positive physical and mental health, lower frequencies of mental disorders, and self-esteem” (Strassle, McKee, and Plant, 1999, p. 191-192). In other words, optimists experience less negative psychological effects from stress and feel better about their selves overall. Since positive people experience less negative effects from stress, they in turn produce better immune system functioning to fight off illnesses. Along with preventing illness, optimism has recently revealed direct benefits on physical symptoms.

Optimism and Psychological Health

According to Thuen and Rise (2006), optimism affects our psychological well-being in part through coping strategies. Those who hold a positive outlook on life view obstacles as challenges that they are capable of overcoming and therefore take a more active approach in dealing with all other issues. Pessimists view stressful events as impossible and detrimental to their current emotional state, and take a more avoidant approach in dealing with issues to prevent possible stress. Thuen and Rise (2006) conducted a study on the effects of optimism and perceived control in people adapting to life after a divorce, and one set of results revealed that higher levels of optimism decreased the number of negative symptoms experienced from the divorce. The optimists were able to better cope with the distress by using their positive perspective to buffer the negative emotional effects of the divorce. Pessimists experience more intense negative emotional symptoms from using avoidant strategies, such as self-criticism, social withdrawal, and wishful thinking (Thuen and Rise, 2006, p. 122). Instead of dealing with the painful emotions from the divorce, pessimists would rather dream about a future without the pain while the stress slowly and unconsciously disrupts their current state of psychological health. Trying to avoid having to deal with stress and pain allows greater distress to develop from letting negative emotions successively influence our perspective of our lives and ourselves. Holding a realistic view of optimism provides a kind of psychological shield against experiencing negative emotions and thoughts from stressful situations.

Optimism and Physical Health

The effects of optimism on our physical health are derived from the understanding that stress causes physical symptoms. “Researchers from the University of Wisconsin discovered that when people exhibit negative emotions, their immune response is weakened, putting them at greater risk for [physical] illness” (King, 2008). Optimism is a factor that works to prevent physical illness by controlling stress levels that affect the functioning of our immune system. Armata and Baldwin (2008) concluded that optimism worked to reduce stress levels that intensified physical digestive problems through the use of efficient coping mechanisms. In other words, having a positive outlook on the digestive problems reduced the amount of stress that was magnifying the physical symptoms. Recently, optimism has been found to provide a more physical component in determining our health. “According to research from the University of Michigan, individuals who expected to receive a benefit from their medication (but received a placebo instead) could trigger the exact same pain-reducing brain chemicals as those who received real medication” (King, 2008). The results from this research strongly supports the notion that staying positive and believing a goal is attainable can provide desirable outcomes. When the participants thought that they were receiving real medication, it led to the perception that the medicine was surely going to alleviate the pain. Ironically, our faith in modern medicine has proven that we can produce the same desirable outcomes without the use of medicine. In positively believing that the sugar pill was efficient to treat the condition, the participants initiated their body’s natural response to remedy the physical symptoms of pain. If they had known that the pill was not real, their doubt would have prevented the miraculous outcome. Therefore, optimism is a pathway to achieving even the most difficult or seemingly impossible goals.


Armata, P., & Baldwin, D. (2008, June). Stress, Optimism, Resiliency, and Cortisol with Relation

to Digestive Symptoms or Diagnosis. Individual Differences Research, 6(2), 123-138.

Retrieved April 21, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database.

King, B. (2008, January). THE POWER OF A POSITIVE MINDSET. Alive: Canadian Journal

     of Health & Nutrition, Retrieved April 21, 2009, from Alt HealthWatch database.

Strassle, C. G., McKee, E. A., & Plant, D. D. (1999). Optimism as an Indicator of Psychological Health:

Using Psychological Assessment Wisely. Journal of Personality Assessment, 72(2), 191.

Retrieved April 21, 2009, from EBSCOhost database.

Thuen, F., & Rise, J. (2006, April). Psychological adaptation after marital disruption: The effects

of optimism and perceived control. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 47(2), 121-128.

Retrieved April 21, 2009, doi:10.1111/j.1467-9450.2006.00499.x


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