The Science Behind Positive Thinking
When it comes to happiness, the value of optimism is pretty obvious. If you have a positive outlook on life, you are, by definition, more happy. At least in the moment. But that sort of self-referential logic is a little incomplete, and it ignores the cold hard facts from decades of research. So what do the scientists say?
“Research by a number of psychologists has documented diverse benefits of optimism and concomitant drawbacks of pessimism. Optimism, conceptualized and assessed in a variety of ways, has been linked to positive mood and good morale; to perseverance and effective problem solving; to academic, athletic, military, occupational, and political success; to popularity; to good health; and even to long life and freedom from trauma. Pessimism, in contrast, foreshadows depression, passivity, failure, social estrangement, morbidity, and mortality.”
The studies are almost overwhelming. They have shown striking correlates between optimism and good health, including immunological robustness, absence of negative mood, and health-promoting behavior. One even found that optimism was the number one characteristic shared between 750 Vietnam vets who were POWs for 6-8 years and didn’t return with PTSD.
Many think that the secret behind optimism is the self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby people who expect good things to come take better care of themselves and take actions that will lead to better outcomes. For example, cold calls lead to more sales, and optimistic sales people are more likely to make cold calls.
The reverse is true for pessimism; ruminating on depressing topics leads to more depression.
Yet as with everything in life, all of these concepts must be considered carefully. The way you vent makes a difference—journaling about emotional upset has been shown to improve health, as we’ve suggested and written about before.
It is just as important to distinguish the way in which you hold optimism. If you absolutely know something is impossible—for example that you’ll grow wings and a tail, it makes no sense to hope for it. Wishful thinking can distract people from making concrete plans about how to attain goals. When optimism goes unchecked by the normal sadness of certain setbacks, caution, sobriety, and conservation of resources are diminished.
Even optimism’s biggest scientific champion, the late Christopher Peterson, says “hoping for things that cannot possibly happen is indeed stupid.” On the other hand Peterson reminds us that “unrealistic does not always mean impossible.” What do we make of that kind of complexity? The key is to use optimism to drive action. For example, if you hope to become a professional writer, optimism can help you put your pen to the paper and start honing your craft.
Some researchers are looking into cognitive-behavioral interventions to teach optimism to children, while others have found successful therapeutic strategies for targeting the effects of pessimism on mood. Still others are trying our society wide interventions such as printing the word “Optimism” on every single New York Subway ticket. Finally, researchers suggest strategies to reduce stress and trauma.
Do you consider yourself an optimist? What could you do to change your view? Many of the techniques shared on DailyHap such as meditation, journaling, and generally maintaining an integral life practice naturally increase optimism if practiced consistently over long periods of time.
There is still a lot of research to be done, but it seems self-evident that optimism and happiness both influence each other. So if you are in the pursuit of happiness—whether by getting involved in your community, staying fit and healthy, attending religious services, spending time in nature, or any of the other demonstrably effective forms of increasing your subjective well-being—you have reason to be optimistic about your future.
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Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1987). Dispositional optimism and physical well-being: The influence of generalized outcome expectancies on health. Journal of Personality, 55, 169–210.
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Segerstrom, S. C., Taylor, S. E., Kemeny, M. E., & Fahey, J. L. (1998). Optimism is associated with mood, coping, and immune change in response to stress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1646–1655.
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 Oettingen, G. (1996). Positive fantasy and motivation. In P. M. Gollwitzer & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), The psychology of action: Linking cognition and motivation to behavior (pp. 236–259). New York: Guilford Press.
Seligman, M. E. P., Castellon, C., Cacciola, J., Schulman, P., Luborsky, L., Ollove, M., & Downing, R. (1988). Explanatory style change during cognitive therapy for unipolar depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 97, 13–18.