Once it was the pessimists that had all the street cred, with their clever cynicism and cautious restraint. Now, it seems, we all want to be optimists. Optimists have a better life; we’re told: they’re happier and more successful. The most recent call to optimism comes from a new study conducted by the University of Illinois, published in the Journal: Health, Behaviour and Policy Review. The study revealed that optimists have better cardiovascular health than pessimists – so, in theory, they should live longer. The data was derived from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), an ongoing review of subclinical cardiovascular disease that comprises 6,000 people from a range of US regions. Below are the important findings.
- There is a clear link between optimism and cardiovascular health.
- The study measured cardiovascular health markers such as blood pressure, body mass index and fasting glucose.
- Optimistic individuals are twice as likely to have optimum cardiovascular health compared with their pessimistic counterparts.
- Even after controlling for factors such as mental health and socio-economic factors, the link between heart health and optimism remains significant.
- The participants’ total health scores rose with their degrees of optimism. Those with the highest levels of optimism were up to 76 percent more likely to record “total health scores” in the study’s “ideal” (cardiovascular) bands and 56 percent more likely to have “total health scores” in the “intermediate” bands.
- Blood sugar and cholesterol levels were also better for optimists, compared with pessimistic participants.
- Optimists are more physically active and more likely to lead healthier lives, compared with pessimists.
- A previous study found that increases in total health scores reduces the risk of suffering a stroke.
The Significance of the Study
The study is the first to look at the relationship between optimism and cardiovascular health in such a large and racially diverse population. Even when factoring in variables such as education level, race, ethnicity and income, the link between cardiovascular health and optimism remained highly significant.
It also corroborates findings from earlier studies that have revealed psychological factors such as optimism can reduce the risk of cardiovascular events. Studies have also shown that psychological factors such as stress, hostility and depression have an adverse impact on heart health.
An average of one American dies from cardiovascular disease daily. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the “number one” cause of mortality in America; stroke is the fourth cause of mortality. Prevention of the disease has thus far focused on lifestyle changes such as “avoiding tobacco, becoming more active and choosing good nutrition”: the Association’s ABC of good heart health. The results of this study suggest that psychological characteristics such as levels of optimism are also important.
Where to go From Here
Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Martin Seligman’s work on optimism has shown that optimism can be learned. So if you have a tendency to see the glass as ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’, the good news is that you can change your outlook to a more optimistic one, which will help you safeguard both your psychological and physiological health.