Every cloud has a silver lining.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s always darkest before the dawn.
Look at the glass half full.
Don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill.
There are a number of old adages and tidbits of practical wisdom that tell that it’s not what we’re looking at that matters, but how we’re looking at it…and many of them nudge us to adopt an optimistic perspective because, well, why not?
But research is giving us even more reason to look on the bright side. It turns out, optimism comes with some surprising health benefits.
Research from a number of long-term studies comparing the health impact of optimism are making it clear that looking on the bright side benefits overall health. So far, studies show that compared to pessimists, optimists enjoy:
• Longer life spans
• Lower rates of depression
• Improved resistance to illness like the common cold
• Lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease
• Better coping skills
It seems that the common denominator of all these health benefits is lower stress, better stress management.
Stress is the process your body goes through in response to a stressor. Under stress, the body readies itself for the flight or fight response by releasing a number of hormones that supply the muscles with increased blood flow, make energy more readily available to vital systems and decrease pain sensitivity. Short term, this chemical response is essential for survival. Long term, the body cannot sustain hormone levels to meet the demand for increased energy, so systems get tired, and overall health suffers.
Chronic stress is the culprit (or, at the very least, an accomplice to) behind many diseases and syndromes, including:
• Hypertension (high blood pressure)
• Ischemic heart disease
• Irritable bowel syndrome
• Obesity (and obesity-related illnesses, such as diabetes mellitus)
Chronic stress is cited as a contributing factor to many mental health issues like alcoholism, and it exacerbates skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema. (For more information, see Skin Under Stress.)
Stress management is the key to improved health, and the key to stress management is a positive outlook. So how can you reap the benefits of optimism if you weren’t born with a sunny disposition? Cultivate it.
Optimism and pessimism aren’t traits you are born with and stuck with. They are habits of mind that stick with practice, so it’s possible to become an optimist. Here are some tips to help you find, look and focus on the bright side:
1. Focus on the positive.
If you are prone to seeing the glass as half empty, it will take conscious effort to change your point of view, so put conscious effort into doing it. Actively look for the good in situations and people. Starting a journal or scrapbook to collect thoughts and images of what you’re grateful for, what good came out of not-so-great situations, etc. will help document the positive, which will serve as a concrete pick-me-up during low times.
2. Start with the physical.
An optimistic perspective comes with health benefits, but, really, it’s a cyclical relationship. If you feel good physically, you’ll feel good mentally…so take care of your body. Participate in activities you like that get your heart rate up and muscles moving. Learn to love your veggies. Finally see your doctor about nagging symptoms that keep you from feeling 100% ready to tackle your day.
3. Develop a support system.
When you’re in the middle of a bad situation, it can be challenging to see an end, let alone a positive side to it. So ask your friends to help you find it. Surround yourself with positive people—friends, family and coworkers who don’t want to join your pity parade but who want to invite you to an entirely new positive party!
4. Fake it until you make it.
Optimists are made, not just born. Like any learned skill, optimism will take practice to feel natural. That means that at the start you may just be going through the motions—consciously thinking positively, but, eventually, you will feel more positive.
Changing habits of mind isn’t easy, but cultivating an optimistic outlook is certainly worth the effort. March, Optimism Month, is the perfect time to start seeing the world in a whole new way, to practice finding the blessings and making opportunities amidst the challenges. After all, when life gives you lemons…