Attitude, many say, is everything.
Looking at a glass half full is likely to help you carry the load through the inevitable stressful times of life — not because these events will miraculously go away but because you’ll plug along believing things will get better.
Now a study has confirmed what all those “Postive Petes” have been telling you.
Optimism is connected to better heart health.
A review of more than 4,900 people of Latino/Hispanic ancestry living in the U.S. found that there’s a strong correlation between increased levels of optimism and better cardiovascular health.
The sample was drawn from a larger study, the Sociocultural Ancillary Study, which looks at how socioeconomic, cultural and psychosocial influences affect Latinos' health. To assess heart health, researchers used Life’s Simple 7, an American Heart Association list of seven factors that affect cardiovascular health (body mass index, blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol levels, diet, physical activity levels and tobacco use). To measure optimism, they used the Life Orientation Test-Revised (LOT-R), which looks at a person’s general outlook on life through a series of questions. The LOT-R responses are scored from 6, as the least optimistic to 30, the most optimistic.
Researchers, who published their findings in the British Medical Journal, found that each unit increase of optimism was associated with three percent higher odds of meeting ideal cardiovascular health across at least four metrics. While acknowledging that more studies are needed to explore both the causes and potential use of the relationship between positive emotions and health, the study’s scientists concluded this was “preliminary evidence for an association between optimism and CVH (cardiovascular health) in a large heterogeneous group of Hispanic/Latino adults.”
But while looking at the bright side may sound like a wonderful solution to prickly health problems, Dr. Dominique L. Musselman, a psychiatrist with the University of Miami Health System, is quick to issue a warning. “We’re all looking for the magic bullet,” she says, “but there’s no coherent, consistent literature that proves optimism leads to better health outcomes.”
She’s a bit skeptical because optimism is often a self-reported measurement and dependence on happy thinking won’t cure disease or disorders. In fact, she worries that it might prevent people from seeking medical treatment.
Optimists have healthy habits
That said, other studies have shown that being an optimist does contribute to better health — but not necessarily in the easy, effortless way one might want. In general, optimists tend to have healthy habits, she adds. A review of the literature published by the National Institutes of Health found that optimism was linked to “abstaining from smoking, moderate consumption of alcohol, the habit of walking briskly and regular physical activity, regardless of demographical factors, current psycho-physical conditions and body mass.” Optimists also eat better and report having more energy throughout the day.
But whether it’s a cheery attitude that contributes to this behavior or healthy behavior that leads to optimism is anyone’s guess. Dr. Mussulman explains it thus: “Optimism helps convert you from the short-term reward mentality — enjoying a fast food choice, for example — to taking a chance on the healthier, long-term choice.”
Like the recently published review on cardiovascular health, other studies have confirmed a correlation between optimism and good health. In a study of menopausal women, optimism appeared to slow the progress of carotid atherosclerosis. Conversely, a high measure of pessimism significantly predicted premature death in young patients with breast cancer, according to a 1996 study. And among patients with neck or head cancer, optimists had a “significantly greater survival” a year after diagnosis when compared to pessimists, according to a 2003 study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
When compared to pessimists, optimists also appear to manage stress better. They deal with problems head-on instead on wishing them away. On the other end of the spectrum, pessimists engage in more avoidance behavior and are more likely to give up on their goals.
Mussulman says a cheery disposition may be akin to prayer. “It makes people feel better emotionally.”
So go ahead. Laugh. Focus on the positive. Imagine a happy future. But also don’t ignore what Mussulman calls the “evidence-based” factors of good health. Exercise. Eat your veggies. Avoid fast food. Don’t smoke. Limit your alcohol intake. Get enough sleep and cultivate friendships.
Just practice these habits with a big smile and a song in your heart.
In Their Words
Ana Veciana-Suarez, Guest Contributor
Ana is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author, who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.