Optimism: The Secret Ingredient to a Longer, Healthier, and Happier Life
Given the recent (and what essentially seem to be constant) reports of natural disasters, some individuals find it difficult to be forward-looking, or optimists. On the other hand, there are those who choose to say, “What turmoil, what disasters?” No, the latter individuals aren’t ignorant of the news programs that report such stories, but are generally considered to be optimistic individuals, where they choose to focus their awareness on the awe-inspiring events that take place. According to an abundant amount of literature, these optimists tend to live happier, healthier, longer, and more standardly “successful” (broadly defined) lives than their not so optimistic counterparts. If you don’t happen to be one of these inspired individuals who constantly see the glass as being half full, you may become encouraged to share this perspective after familiarizing yourself with some convincing and striking literature.
At the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, I’ve provided what I believe to be a thought provoking quote for you to ponder: “If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought.” There is significant evidence that this compelling quote holds true when applied to real circumstances. Not only does it feel genuinely pleasant to see the beauty in every day, person, and circumstance (ok, I may be getting carried away), but this perspective can actually help us manifest and accomplish many of our desires. For instance, a recent study examined the optimistic disposition on MBA students’ job searches and success, and found that the optimists not only landed a job more easily and with less effort, but were more likely than their non-optimistic peers to be promoted 2 years after graduation (MIT Sloan Management Review, 2010; Kaniel, Massey, & Robinson, 2010). This fun fact is only the beginning.
Dr. Martin Seligman is known as the leader in positive psychology, and correspondingly conducts a significant amount of research in the area of optimists and pessimists. He, and other like-minded researchers in this area, have discovered many benefits that optimists have over pessimists. Not only do optimists experience less stress than pessimists and realists, have a higher level of emotional health, and live significantly longer, but they are considerably more persistent, and are therefore more likely to achieve “success” (Scott, 2011). Are you sold yet? How about this: Harvard University students who were optimists at age 25 were significantly healthier at ages 45 and 60 than those who were pessimists. In addition, pessimists have significantly higher rates of infectious disease, poor health, and earlier mortality (Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillant, 1988). Lastly (and oh-so inspiring), breast cancer patients who were optimists had better health outcomes than pessimistic and hopeless patients (Scott, 2011). Now that’s something to smile about!
Now that we have all of the facts and are prepared to learn or make use of our inherited optimism, where do we begin? Chances are, the majority of you reading this are harmonious individuals who are likely continuing to bring joy to those around you. Then again, we all need a review every now and then (even Martin Seligman!). I think an important message that often fails to receive representative attention is not only the benefits (of optimism) that I’ve outlined in this article, but the sincere joy that can snowball from your optimistic attitude and energy. Once we start to integrate optimism into our lives on a more automatic basis, our energies tend to impact and inspire others to seek this way of knowing for themselves. Conversely, by doing simple and seemingly small acts of kindness that impact others around us, we are bound to see aspects, events, and people in a brighter and more optimistic light.
So, while we are bombarded with depressing news reports on crimes, natural disasters, and the like, there are so many amazing acts of kindness and examples of generosity that can be found in their aftermath. For instance, while the news tends to focus on the fact that the recent Japan earthquake/Tsunami “only” received $87 million dollars in the first seven days (when compared to alternative natural disasters), we can choose to join them and express our outrage at the world, or we can simply choose to look at this staggering amount of money and recognize the warmth and generosity that surrounds us. The simple fact that individuals (many of whom do not have large sums of money) reached into their wallets, lent a helping hand, or sent supplies to families and schools, purely touches your heart. It is incidents like this where, although they begin as unfortunate and devastating disasters, individuals all over the world join together and exhibit kind acts in an optimistic hope that we will triumph together. Gradually, by seeing the beauty that this world has to offer, you’ll inspire others to see the same.
I leave you with a small task that many of you may already do on a regular basis: Within the next week, while walking or biking down the street, or perhaps as you’re squashed between people on the subway, engage eye contact with a complete stranger (perhaps someone who appears to need some optimism), and give him/her your brightest smile. While this can first and foremost elicit a curious reaction, the after effect may inspire him/her to pay it forward, and brighten someone else’s day.