A Closer Look How Does Optimism Promote Health?
Is it possible to learn to be optimistic, and thereby avoid the health risks associated with pessimism? Is pessimism like smoking—once you overcome it, the health risk soon returns to normal levels? Psychologist Martin Seligman and colleagues have started a program to teach grade school children how to be optimistic. According to their evaluation of this program (Gillham et al., 1995), the results look promising. The children in this study who were taught to be more optimistic tended to have fewer episodes of depression than the ones who did not receive optimism training. The participants are still young, however, so future effects remain to be investigated. It will be interesting to see what happens to the trained optimists as they grow older. Will they have better physical health than the children who were not given the optimism training?
Psychologists might be able to teach specific skills if they knew exactly what it was about optimism that promotes better health. Psychologists have theorized about the possible mechanisms that link optimism to health. It is important to view these mechanisms not as competing hypotheses but, rather, with the view that two or more of these mechanisms may be operating to produce better health among optimists.
One mechanism is through the immune system. Seligman and his colleagues (Kamen-Siegel, Rodin, Seligman, & Dwyer, 1991), have shown that the immune systems of optimists respond better and with more strength to a challenge than the immune systems of pessimists. Other researchers have examined how optimism relates to the progression of HIV. Although results are mixed, there are suggestions in the literature that optimists have a longer survival time after the development of AIDS symptoms and that this may be due to stronger immune function among optimists (Peterson & Bossio, 2001).
Another way optimism may relate to better health is through an emotional mechanism. There is a very large literature on how optimists are resistant to depression. Other studies have linked depression to increased risk for disease and poor health. It could be that optimism is related to health indirectly, because it protects persons from depression and, hence, the debilitating health effects of this uncomfortable emotional condition.
Another mechanism through which optimism might be linked to health is through a cognitive process. Optimism may be related to an extensive set of beliefs about oneself and the world, and these beliefs may, in part, promote health or healthy behaviors. For example, Peterson and de Avila (1995) showed that optimism was related to the belief that one can maintain and promote one's own good health as well as the belief that one can reduce health risks. Other studies have shown that optimists see the world as less filled with hassles and therefore feel less stress than pessimists.
Another pathway through which optimism may influence health is through a mechanism that promotes social contact. Pessimists tend to be loners, and social isolation is a reliable predictor of poor health (Cobb, 1976) and general distress and dissatisfaction with life (Diener, 1996). A person's friends and family may provide the earliest medical feedback when things start going bad.
For example, a friend might say, "You look stressed today," or a roommate might remark, "You are looking really tired these days. Is something wrong?" If pessimists are isolated and avoid social contact, then they may have less of this social feedback and, hence, not have this source of information about their health status.
A final and obvious way in which optimism and health might be related is through a direct behavioral mechanism. Optimism may set into motion certain behaviors that lead to benefits for health. For example, optimists engage in higher levels of problem-focused coping and lower levels of avoidance coping, such as ignoring problems (Scheier, Weintraub, & Carver, 1986). The answer to how optimism and health are linked could be as simple as that optimists act differently and take better care of their health than pessimists do. Or it could be that optimists are better at coping and, so, experience less stress than pessimists. Behavior—simply doing more of the right things (e.g., exercising, sleeping enough) and fewer of the wrong things (e.g., drinking, having unsafe sex)—may prove to be the most critical link in the connection between optimism and health.
You can see how complicated the link between optimism and health can be. Since most of the research on this topic is correlational, psychologists cannot pinpoint exactly which factors are responsible for the correlation. Nevertheless, psychologists speculate about what factors are behind this association, and future research will help determine the most effective components of the optimistic personality style in contributing to better health and a longer life.
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