There is always a sense of optimism at the start of every new year. It’s that feeling of positivity associated with a fresh start and new possibilities, often taking the form of new year’s resolutions. However, being an optimist in today’s world seems like an impossible task. After all, how can anybody look at the current situation — pandemic and all — with positivity?
Psychotherapist Amy Morin explains how the COVID-19 crisis has made people more sensitive to negative news. This has also affected how people see good news, and how optimistic we can still be.
However, that doesn’t mean we should succumb to the negativity around us, as there are still many reasons to be an optimist. In fact, being optimistic has many proven benefits for your health.
But if you’re having a difficult time looking at the world in a positive light, then these six health benefits of optimism might push you in the right direction.
But First, What Is Optimism?
Before we dive into these health benefits, it’s essential to understand what optimism is. It mainly relates to how people see their future and expect good or bad outcomes.
People exhibit this positive or negative outlook on a spectrum. You may be somewhere in the middle, while others could be much more pessimistic.
Ultimately, optimism is a mindset that you can build despite the realities you may be facing. It is a way of thinking that can help you cope with life’s challenges.
There’s no single cause for it. Many different factors influence why we become more optimistic or pessimistic as time passes and events occur. Perhaps a person was traumatized multiple times, resulting in a very gloomy outlook, but the same set of events may also happen to a person who chooses to be optimistic instead.
While psychologists see optimism as a relatively stable and consistent personality trait, the good news is that it has also been found that levels of optimism can change over time.
So whether you are an optimist or a pessimist now (or perhaps somewhere in between), there are many reasons why you can opt to develop a more optimistic view of the world.
How Optimism Benefits You
1. It Can Help You Sleep Better
Good, restorative sleep is one of the most important aspects of your health. This is because it is involved in the healing and repairing of your heart and blood vessels, as well as in resting your brain.
However, getting high-quality sleep is difficult for most people. One in three Americans, for example, have less than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night — a problem made worse around the world by the pandemic.
Though there are plenty of little things you can do to fix this, like avoiding screens before sleep or taking a supplement, having a good level of optimism may be one way to get a better night’s sleep. A 2019 study found this to be true.
In it, researchers measured optimism levels and the sleep quality of over 3,500 participants. After five years, they checked back on the participants, who reported having higher sleep quality throughout the study. Optimism played a role in how participants felt while they slept rather than measuring how long they actually slept.
These findings suggest that optimists get better sleep because they can cope with negative emotions better during the day. As a result, leftover problems and negative emotions during the day are less likely to bother one at night, leading to more peaceful, high-quality sleep.
What’s more, better sleep also contributes to one’s optimism since it improves your creativity and memory. Better sleep may also reduce anxiety, helping you look at life more positively. In the same way that optimism improves our sleep quality, better sleep may also influence our levels of optimism as well.
2. It Can Help You Rebound More Quickly From Setbacks
Life is full of challenges that are bound to set us back from time to time. While this is an uncomfortable and inevitable part of reality, what matters is how we respond to it.
Optimists approach negative events differently compared to other people. When someone with an optimistic outlook encounters a negative event, they recognize that the causes of those events are external and temporary. Pessimistic people may take these situations more personally, which leads to poorer coping mechanisms.
For example, a common goal that people set in the new year is to get in shape. Optimists are less likely to blame themselves for not meeting their exercise goals from the get-go than pessimists.
It becomes easier not to dwell on failures and acknowledge that they don’t define you with a more optimistic outlook. This is why being optimistic can help you rebound much more quickly from setbacks and move forward with life.
3. It Can Help With Achievement
Oftentimes, self-doubt stands in the way of us achieving the things we want to. People who constantly doubt themselves have a pessimistic outlook on things.
However, when you notice the good, both around you and within you, you’re more able to expect positive things to happen. This influences your behavior, and you’re more likely to act according to your mindset.
For example, you may be inclined to believe that accomplishing a marathon will never happen for you. But if you try to steer your thoughts into believing that you can do it, you’re more likely to put in the work that will help you achieve it, such as having a nutrition plan and a training schedule.
Optimism also helps us achieve things because it helps us persevere. People who have a more positive outlook are able to persist through tough times because they are confident in themselves and the outcomes that they can look forward to. This is true even when progress is slow or difficult.
This is why optimistic students do better in school and are less likely to drop out than pessimistic students. Those who remain optimistic after their studies have also been found to earn more later in life. So the next time you have feelings of self-doubt, just remember that being optimistic can actually help you achieve more than you may believe.
4. It Helps You Maintain Good Physical Health
Optimism isn’t just good for your mental health — it’s great for your physical wellbeing, too. Researchers hypothesize that this is because optimists are more confident in taking actions that benefit their health. They believe that by taking the proper steps, they will achieve better health.
On the other hand, pessimists may tend to view their current state of health as already negative, and their future even more so. They may question whether taking steps to improve their condition will actually be effective.
It can be easy to doubt one’s efficacy in this regard, which is why pessimists are more likely to have increased levels of conditions like atherosclerosis and high blood pressure. What all this tells us is that maintaining a healthy level of optimism about what you can do about your physical wellbeing can help you achieve it.
5. It Encourages Healthy Behavior
How does optimism encourage changes in our mental and physical health? What it actually does is encourage a change in one’s behavior. Being optimistic can encourage a person to build healthier ways of doing things, including exercising and eating well.
Optimistic people are also less likely to smoke and usually only drink moderate amounts of alcohol. They also make it a point to get more and better quality sleep, as discussed earlier. More optimistic people also have fewer anonymous sexual partners and healthier diets.
By engaging in healthier behaviors, people can live an improved quality of life with better health outcomes. This, in turn, develops a more optimistic outlook, so the cycle goes on. If you want to focus on living a healthier life overall, then one of the things you can work on is developing an optimistic mindset.
6. It Helps You Live Longer
Given all of its other benefits, it’s no surprise that being an optimistic person can actually help you live longer. A 2019 study on optimism and longevity measured the optimism levels of 69,000 female participants and 1,400 male participants over 10 years. The researchers found that the more optimistic participants lived longer lives.
How to Be More Optimistic
Now, all this may not sound like good news for pessimists. But if you consider yourself one, don’t fret: It is entirely possible to become more optimistic and reap all the benefits associated with it.
Lewina Lee, one of the researchers in the study above, explained that she’s worked with patients who have a negative outlook on life but want to become more optimistic. This, she assures us, is doable once we’re able to let go of negative beliefs that we tend to hold on to more rigidly. She says, “I would try to challenge their negativity and shake it loose.”
Here are a few ways to do that on your own:
Be Aware of Your Thoughts
One of the essential steps in becoming more optimistic is to be aware of your thoughts. Pay attention to how much you are focusing on the good versus the bad. Once you notice this, it becomes easier to be deliberate about where you focus your thoughts and energy.
Take Note of the People Around You
The people around you can significantly influence how optimistic or pessimistic you are. If you keep company that loves to complain or gossip endlessly, then you’ll realize how contagious negativity is.
Fortunately, positivity can be just as easy to spread. Try to surround yourself with a happier network of people. Gravitate toward optimistic and grounded individuals in life so that their positive energy can influence you. We’ve learned from other countries how happiness can be a collective phenomenon, so it’s good to spend time with people who are optimistic as well.
Acknowledge What Is Within or Outside of Your Control
In life, unfavorable and unpredictable things happen quite often. Not having things within your control can be extremely frustrating, but it is important to build an awareness of what falls within or outside of what you can control. Your locus of control is a psychological concept that describes how much you believe you control situations and experiences that affect your life.
Acknowledging that not everything is within that locus of control allows you to adapt and thrive during times of uncertainty. A common example is losing your job. How you lost it may have been out of your hands, but you can take control over how you find a new job.
Reduce Your Exposure to Bad News
One of the easiest ways to become more optimistic is to reduce your exposure to bad news. Today’s pandemic puts everything in a negative light and makes it difficult to focus on the few good things that may be happening in your life.
While it may be good to stay updated on current events, consuming too much news — in other words, doomscrolling — can create a bleak outlook. Allow yourself to absorb just enough information and have someone to process it with, but do not spend too much time thinking about all the negative events you have very little control over.
Building an optimistic outlook is, for the most part, a psychological task. Exercising the mind makes it easier to build certain thinking patterns, such as positive thinking. Mindfulness meditation is one method that works by changing the brain’s structure.
In 2011, a Harvard study found that this activity can actually change the thickness in the hippocampus, which controls learning and memory. It also decreases the number of brain cells in the amygdala, which governs fear, anxiety, and stress. This can then improve one’s mood, overall wellbeing, and outlook.
Whether you’re hoping to improve your physical or mental health, there is no shortage of benefits that come with being optimistic. Not only does having a positive outlook help you live longer, but it can also improve your overall health and quality of life.
Though making the conscious choice toward more positive thinking can be a bit of a challenge, especially at first, the journey is rewarding and entirely possible. Where pessimism tells you that you can’t do it, optimism celebrates the joyful reality that you can.