Optimism

It’s getting tougher these days to think of the glass as half full rather than half empty, but if you’re going to survive this economic crisis – literally – you might as well try. – Time

Optimism.  This can be hard when 2 people you know lost their job in the last week and a third got a layoff notice.  Or when everyone’s ready to throw their fat panic all over you.  Or when people start talking like keeping a “positive attitudealone will keep you from getting sick or dying.  Next thing you know, people are saying things like, “Well, she was always so negative. No wonder she’s sick.” 

So what has been found?  Most recently, some researchers found the women they identified as optimists lived longer than the ones they identified as pessimists.  They also found that those who were more “mistrustful”, or “cynically hostile”, were more likely to die than those who were less “cynically hostile.”   

But what does this mean?  Well, first off, this is correlation, not causation.  The optimism may be directly affecting longevity, or it may be affecting something else that affects longevity, or the optimism and longevity may be both caused by other factors.   

Some speculations: 

What it’s not is magic. Optimism doesn’t prevent bad things from happening.  

Sure, if being optimistic makes you happy, go for it.  I tend to care about it a bit myself* because of my own history.   But I also think that being worried about not being optimistic enough is probably counter-productive. 
 


*One of the main reasons this story caught my eye is that excess stress and pessimism tends to push me toward clinical depression.   So I tend to keep a mental eye on my mood and to make sure I give myself time to laugh, to unwind, and to look on the bright side.  Call me crazy, but I like not being depressed.  :)

11 thoughts on “Optimism

  1. Heh. On the one hand, I do think being optimistic is good. At the very least, I’d rather go through life hopeful and upbeat than miserable.

    But then, my Grandmother – the most mistrustful and cynically hostile (hey, that really fits her!) woman I know just turned 90 last month. I really think it’s mainly genetics. Lifestyle is completely second fiddle.

    And the magic thinking. Ah. I could vent a lot about that. One of the most upbeat, optimistic, happy-go-lucky people I know came down with cancer a year ago. I nearly burst a vessel when some (admittedly, well meaning) acquaintence went into her law of attraction spiel and how happy thoughts and unicorn rainbows could heal her. Yeah.

  2. You know, people can survive almost anything and come out optimistic, but while you’re going through the worst of it pessimism can grab hold.

    So, I wonder – how much of this correlates to what people are dealing with and the stress it causes? Obviously, people cope differently with stress – of two people who have both recently lost loved ones, I imagine at any singular moment one will be more optimistic than the other. But I have not recently suffered such a tragedy, so I am more optimistic than I would be if I had.

    If I have a life that allows me more room to “return to baseline”, it seems to me I’d be both more optimistic AND less stressed, and therefore healthier, compared to the same me dealing with tragedy after tragedy or persecution after persecution.

  3. I am inclined by nature and nurture to negativity, but the “list things you are thankful for” and “list things you are happy about” memes on the Internet and mindfulness meditation have helped me develop some habits of optimism.

    (Prozac also doesn’t hurt, in my case.)

  4. I’m never going to be an optimist unless my entire personality is erased. I am so sick of implications that I have a duty to try to be more optimistic, or that optimism is the default state. Optimism and pessimism are both distortions of accurate judgment, and frankly I’d rather error on the side of “Gee, maybe I had better not try to leap across that crevice on a jetpowered skateboard because actually I would in all likelihood fail and then possibly die.” Aim for the moon and you might burn up in re-entry. I am much more in line with “If you are not angry, you are not paying attention.” Actively trying to look on the bright side makes me depressed.

    I notice your speculations all read as optimism causing an intermediate factor that improves people’s health. But could not other factors be a cause of both optimism and health? I can totally see low stress levels and high self-esteem being causes of optimism. And good health itself could conceivably cause optimism, although I assume the study controlled for that to some extent, because if they asked dying people how optimistic they felt, that would be a silly study.

    • I notice your speculations all read as optimism causing an intermediate factor that improves people’s health. But could not other factors be a cause of both optimism and health?

      That’s mainly because the speculations I found from researchers slant that way, but yes, absolutely other factors could cause both – at least in people who tend to be optimistic anyway.

  5. LOL. I’m generally an optimist, but I try to think realistically most of the time … and since I’m sick and I know my boundaries, people always mistake me for a pessimist. I tell them “I can’t do that” and what they hear is “I don’t believe I could do that, so I’m afraid of trying.” Yeah, right. Excuse me for thinking what happened ten times already might happen again. *headdesk*

    My mother always used to tell me that I’d get better if only I had more confidence. Needless to say it didn’t help.

    • I tell them “I can’t do that” and what they hear is “I don’t believe I could do that, so I’m afraid of trying.”

      I think “can’t” is a hot-button word to lots of people, and not to others. For some people it IS a synonym for “don’t want to” or “I’ve made other plans that preclude that” but for others it is a Big Deal. Sigh.

  6. I also have to wonder how much optimism translates into doctors thinking that when you come in with a problem, it’s one worth trying to solve.

    After all, we know that some doctors will refuse to investigate symptoms presented by fat patients, simply informing them it will all solve itself when you lose weight, and I’ve personally run across a couple of doctors who automatically discount anything a female patient says she’s feeling but will do all they can for the male of the species. Why wouldn’t there be doctors who ignore symptoms mentioned by patients who are pessimistic or actively hostile?

    None of these cases should be true, but they are happening every day.

  7. My mother was a worrier who always expected the worst, & she lived to be 85. In fact, most of the people on her mother’s side of the family, regardless of personality or outlook, have lived well into their 80’s & 90’s & at least one past 100. A friend of mine is a live-in care-giver for a miserable, ill-tempered, selfish, generally nasty woman who drinks & smokes, but is pushing her 85th birthday. My mother-in-law is also negative, bitchy, critical, anxious, a worrier, & impossible to please; she will be 87 in May. Here in Maine, it seems as a great many of the long-lived people tend to be independent, cantankerous, determined to live life on their own terms rather than being dictated to. I try to be fairly optimistic, but I am also a nervous, anxious, hyper, & highly-strung person, very emotional, often a real reactor.

    Sandy at JunkfoodScience has also written some about the whole ‘attitude’ thing & it seems that most of the scientific evidence suggests that it is mostly just another damn stick with which to beat us, another way of hammering the concept of “personal responsibility” into us & convincing us that we have total control over whatever health problems we have & how long we live. I really believe that telling people that they NEED to be optimistic is only instilling more guilt & anxiety in many people, more of a sense that they can’t do anything right & that, if they die, it is all THEIR FAULT. I also doubt how much we can change our inborn nature & temperament or how completely many of us who carry old scars & many abuse issues, etc., can overcome the effects of these things in order to become Pollyanna.

  8. How about medical conditions that cause pessimism also causing shorter lives, like the thyroid condition I have that when undiagnosed, made me a totale Eeyore? Even with inadequate meds, I am much more of a Pooh without even trying. Suddenly being optimistic is not hard to do. :) How do they know that the pessimists in their study did not have an undiagnosed illness such as low thyroid, or a diagnosed one that was being treated inadequately?

    Also, how about the link between low seratonin levels in people and ill health? Low seratonin can also cause depression and so on, and you can be born with low seratonin just because some past ancestor didn’t get enough to eat, and you can get it later for all sorts of other reasons. Try thinking happy thoughts alone to fix that one!

    Sometime the negative thinking comes after the ill health, not before, or even alongside. Correlation is not causation! (My new catch cry.)

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