I have heard people rant and rave and bellow

That we’re done and we might as well be dead

But I’m only a cock-eyed optimistAnd I can’t get it into my head

South Pacific (Musical), 1949

Optimism is the inclination toward hope. It determines how we come to terms with our present, future and past events. An optimist believes that positive events are more likely to occur than negative events and that those positive events are more likely to happen to him and the negative ones to others. He knows that there are all kinds of bad diseases, but he believes that they are more likely to happen to other people.

Optimism and health

Stroke prevention typically focuses on controlling our blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and diabetes, but our attitude seems to also make a difference.  A study in Stroke looked at 6,044 people who were part of the Health and Retirement study.  During a two year period, 88 of these people had a stroke. All of the participants were administered a test called the LOT-R, which measures a person’s optimism and pessimism.

Typical questions include, “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best,” or “If something can go wrong for me, it will.” The authors looked at dispositional optimism, which is the expectation that more good things than bad things will happen in the future. The study concluded that optimism had a protective effect against having a stroke. Optimists had fewer strokes than pessimists.

Previous studies have confirmed the health benefit of optimism. Optimistic individuals have a decreased risk of coronary artery disease, death from cardiovascular disease and the risk of re-hospitalization after coronary bypass surgery.  

The chicken or the egg 

At an early age, we are confronted with the puzzling question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” question. Similarly, we must ask whether being optimistic leads to better health or whether people with healthy lifestyles are more optimistic because they feel better? 

The answer is still out as to whether you can turn a pessimist into an optimist, or at least change their “habitual” way of thinking, but in light of the health data, you should make a concerted effort.  

Pessimism is bad for your health, and can cause heart disease and strokes that may kill you.  You may not be able turn yourself into a whistling, wide-eyed optimist, but it is worth the effort to shed yourself of the negative thoughts that are bad for your health.

Kim ES, Park N, Peterson C: Dispositional Optimism Protects Older Adults from Stroke: The Health and Retirement Study. Stroke 2011; 42:2855-9.

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