Optimism is good for our health

Last updated 12:32 04/02/2013

DON'T WORRY: Us humans tend to err on the side of being positive, and it seems that may act as a physiological protector, too.

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For all of life's flintier times, overall we're a bubbly bunch. In fact, neuroscience and social science suggest we're more optimistic than realistic, says Tali Sharot in her book, The Optimism Bias: Why We're Wired To Look On The Bright Side.

"On average, we expect things to turn out better than they wind up being," she says. "People hugely underestimate their chances of getting divorced, losing their job, or being diagnosed with cancer; expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted; envision themselves achieving more than their peers; and overestimate their likely lifespan (sometimes by 20 years or more)."

We might not be right, but does it matter?

It depends.

There is increasingly strong evidence of links between our psychological and physical health. A new study by Harvard of nearly 1000 people over a 10 year period has found that optimistic individuals have higher levels of antioxidants (which help to reduce cell damage and prevent disease).

Previously, it has been found that positivity also offers a level of protection against heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular problems.

However the studies do acknowledge that positive people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviours such as exercise, a balanced diet and taking the time to get sufficient sleep.

So it is fair to say that an emotionally healthy heart is also often a physically healthy one. Plus, there's a delightful innocence in optimism. And hope helps us get there.

But of course even though die-hard optimists will instinctively deny it, there is a flip side. For those who naturally err on the cautious, perhaps pessimistic, side of life, being forced to look on the bright side can have a negative effect. This is because, for some people, preparing for the worst helps them to do their best, says psychologist Julie Norem in her book, The Positive Power Of Negative Thinking.

Additionally, pessimists and people with mild depression make more accurate predictions of the future, because they see the world as it is, and not through rose-coloured glasses.

"Overly positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations," Sharot says. They "make us less likely to get health checkups, apply sunscreen or open a savings account, and more likely to bet the farm on a bad investment."

But then of course that very same optimism will help us to overcome those losses.

We are not, as psychologist Paul Meehl pointed out, fragile as spun glass - and optimism allows us to remain resilient, enduring natural disasters, the loss of loved ones and other traumas. In the face of devastation the majority of trauma-exposed people (around 70 to 75 per cent) do not develop post-traumatic stress disorder. This is, at least in part, attributed to hope.

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Optimism, Sharot says, also acts as protection, as it counters the negativity and pessimism that comes with the awareness of death.

"Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future," she says.

And it is sitting side by side that they seem to be healthiest; in the delicate balance where a little weighty pessimism anchors a lot of airy, but brilliant optimism.

"Once we are made aware of our optimistic illusions, we can protect ourselves," Sharot says. "It is possible, then, to strike a balance, to believe we will stay healthy, but get medical insurance anyway; to be certain the sun will shine, but grab an umbrella on our way out - just in case."

- Daily Life


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