Is being a pessimist bad for your health?

The short answer?

Yes.

One famous longitudinal study looked at the health and wellbeing of a group of Harvard students who were examined and tested while they were in school in the 1940s and then every five years thereafter.  At age 25, they were all found to be in good health.  There wasn’t much difference at 30, 35, or 40.  

Then, something happened between around the time they turned 45. The health of the pessimists began to get worse. 

A separate 1998 study showed optimists increase the power of their immune system under stress.  Other research has shown optimists fare better than pessimists after coronary bypass surgery and live longer with HIV.    

This week we’ve been exploring how lessons from George Leonard‘s terrific book The Way of Aikido apply to our lives.  Aikidoists tend to be optimists.  Unlike other martial arts, the goal is not about fighting.  “Aikido is not a technique to fight with or defeat the opponent,” George writes.  “It is a way to reconcile the world and make human beings one family.”

The true optimist is someone who operates on the assumption that things will work out positively; the true pessimist takes the opposing point of view.  George suggests the pessimist might not be happy, but is rarely disappointed.  When things go wrong, he or she says, I knew all along it wouldn’t work.  

Being cynical or sarcastic can earn us laughs.  Being an optimist can seem “uncool.”

But optimists tend to be more successful, happier, healthier, and live longer than pessimists.  Various studies show optimists persevere when pessimists don’t, are more successful salespeople, bounce back quicker after failures, do better in school and in sports, are more likely to win political races, and are less likely than pessimists to be depressed.

Good stuff.  

The better news?  We can learn to become more optimistic.

How so?

Martin Seligman and others in the field of cognitive-behavioral psychology have shown we can learn to be more optimistic by paying attention to how we explain negative events.  Pessimist’s “explanatory style” is personal (“It’s my fault”), permanent (“It’s always going to be like this”) and pervasive (“It’s going to undermine every aspect of my life”).  

Optimists tend to explain bad events differently.  They see what happened as external rather than personal (“I dropped the ball because the sun was in my eyes”), temporary (“It was a fluke, I rarely miss”), and specific (“It had no effect on the rest of my play”).  

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Reflection:  What is my default explanatory style?  Do I lean towards pessimism (personal, permanent, and pervasive) or optimism (external, temporary, and specific)?  

Action:  Choose to see an event today through an optimistic lens.

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