Addiction Policy Forum Blog

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Look on the bright side—new research shows that it helps you live longer

By Mark Gold, MD on September 26, 2019

 

Everyone knows someone who always seems positive, even in challenging situations. To them, the glass is always half full. For example, Microsoft founder Bill Gates is one fabulously successful optimist:1

“In my own life I’ve been extremely lucky. But even subtracting out my personal experience, I think the big picture is that it’s better to be born today than ever, and it will be better to be born 20 years from now than today….So, yes, I am optimistic. It does bother me that most people aren’t.”2

When viewing an image of a glass containing an equal amount of liquid and empty space, 58 percent of Americans felt that the glass was half-full, according to a survey conducted by One Poll on behalf of Borden milk.3 People who view a glass as half-full think more optimistically, decisively, and with more creativity.

It’s common for many individuals to seek out self-help or turn to “positive thinking” after a crisis or particularly stressful point in their lives, and common for others to mock such efforts as misguided or naive. Individuals with depression have problems finding positive aspects of life and may even believe that the proverbial "dark cloud" hovers over their heads. Behavior and motivation-oriented substance use disorder treatment programs often encourage patients to cultivate positive beliefs and to try to focus on positive developments, and some patients approach these practices with skepticism. These programs may advise: fake it till you make it, or shoot for the stars and settle for a moon landing. 

Research, however, consistently demonstrates the benefits of optimism across a number of key health functions. Studies show that optimism can decrease mortality,4 reduce the risk of stroke,5 reduce the risk of heart disease,6 present fewer progressions of carotid disease,7 and improve pulmonary function,8 among other health benefits. So why might an optimistic disposition and positive attitudes lead to better health outcomes, and just how beneficial are these approaches to life?


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