By Mark Gold, MD
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?
What did this study find?
This study, by Lee et al., in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences journal, found that optimism is associated with a longer life span and an increased chance of “exceptional longevity.” The study defines optimism as, “a psychological attribute characterized as the general expectation that good things will happen, or the belief that the future will be favorable because one can control important outcomes.” By focusing on optimism’s relation to living an extra long life, this study also confirmed and extended other findings that link optimism to protection against premature death and chronic diseases. Uniquely, it not only looked at optimism and total years lived, but also at “exceptional longevity”—in effect, a very long life span, understood as reaching age 85 or older. For individuals born in the early 20th century, the study notes, 85 is past the average life expectancy, but not unheard of, and has become a standard reference point for “exceptional longevity” as a result.
This very large and important study reviewed data on women collected from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS), and data from men collected from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study (NAS). The NHS yielded data on 69,744 women starting in 1976, and the NAS on 1,429 men starting in 1961. Women in the NHS did an optimism assessment in 2004 and were measured on mortality to 2014. Men in the NAS did an optimism assessment in 1986 and were measured on mortality until 2016. Most of these tracked men and women were married and white, middle-aged or older, and had higher socioeconomic statuses relative to the population as a whole. This study applied time models to tease out relationships between longevity and optimism in the reviewed cohorts. It found a 14.9% longer life span for women in the highest optimism quartile compared to women in the lowest quartile. For men, the figure was 10.9%. The study also observed that the optimistic among both sexes had greater chances of living to 85 or older.
These results were independent of a number of potentially offsetting factors, such as health, socioeconomic status, depression, and demographics, though they were partially affected by “health behaviors,” like alcohol use, smoking, diet, and physical activity. This is interesting in part because choices about health behaviors may be influenced by optimism, and possibly one reason why optimism contributes to longer lives. At any rate, the association between optimism and longevity still persisted, albeit at somewhat lower rates, after adjusting for health behaviors. This study may be limited by the higher socioeconomic status of its subjects, since higher status is usually linked to higher optimism, and by subjects’ middle and older ages, which preclude examination of how earlier life developments may affect optimism.
Why is this important?
Attitude matters. We often say, "adopt an attitude of gratitude." As the study points out, research also suggests that longer lives are linked to less morbidity. From a public health perspective, this means that factors involved in increasing life span, especially to “exceptional” ages, may help us learn more about and apply better strategies to help individuals lead healthier lives. The more research we have that indicates optimism is one of these vitality-enhancing factors, the more we should encourage it, and the study calls for interventions that promote individual construction of positive attitudes or dispositions. Notably, this approach would be distinct from initiatives that emphasize or prioritize managing or “fixing” particular psychological problems—it may be the case that positivity itself can help patients and those seeking assistance more than any attempt to tackle select concerns.
An optimistic temperament, as the study notes, is about a quarter heritable, but can also be learned, and influenced by structural forces, so more optimism-focused interventions are consistent with what we know about the development of this disposition. There is also a question about related social mechanisms, such as attachments to friends and family, and how they relate to a positive life outlook. Researchers have suggested that optimism may “work” so well across many studies because it’s a conceptual tool, turning aspirations or motivations into actual behavior. Another perspective is that the sunnier among us are more resistant to stress and adversity.
There is no one secret to optimism, but there is a science supporting optimism and happiness. Professor Randy Larsen of Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) identified two personal behaviors as the keys to someone’s relative happiness over the long haul.9 “Being extroverted—that’s a strong predictor of happiness,” Professor Larsen asserts. Conversely, he says that neuroticism, “a tendency to worry, complain, and be pessimistic, is a strong predictor of unhappiness." He also suggested that fearful, pessimistic, and anxious people are drawn to the internet, which may exacerbate their dispositional challenges.10 Tim Bono, a WUSTL Assistant Dean in Arts & Sciences, also teaches courses on happiness. In his recent book, When Likes Aren't Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness, Bono examines how simple parts of life can contribute significantly to happiness.11 Bono offers the following tips for faking it until you make it, or getting and staying happier, in an interview with WUSTL's The Source related to the release of his book:12
"Get outside, move around, take a walk. Research confirms that a few minutes of exercise in nature can boost both mood and energy levels. Exercise is key to our psychological health because it releases the brain’s “feel good” chemicals.
Get more happiness for your money. Studies show little connection between wealth and happiness, but there are two ways to get more bang for your happiness buck — buy experiences instead of things and spend your money on others. The enjoyment one gets from an experience like a vacation or concert will far outweigh and outlast the happiness from acquiring another material possession. Doing good things for other people strengthens our social connections, which is foundational to our well-being.
Carve out time to be happy, then give it away. People dream of finding an extra 30 minutes to do something nice for themselves, but using that time to help someone else is more rewarding and actually leaves us feeling empowered to tackle the next project, helping us feel more in control of our lives and even less pressed for time. This translates to higher levels of happiness and satisfaction.
Delay the positive, dispatch the negative. Anticipation itself is pleasurable, and looking forward to an enjoyable experience can make it all that much sweeter. Wait a couple of days before seeing a new movie that just came out, plan your big vacation for later in the summer and try to take time to savor each bite of dessert. On the flip side, get negative tasks out of the way as quickly as possible — anticipation will only make them seem worse.
Enjoy the ride. People who focus more on process than outcome tend to remain motivated in the face of setbacks. They’re better at sticking with major challenges and prefer them over the easy route. This “growth mindset” helps people stay energized because it celebrates rewards that come from the work itself. Focusing only on the outcome can lead to premature burnout if things don’t go well.
Embrace failure. How we think about failure determines whether it makes us happy or sad. People who overcome adversity do better in life because they learn to cope with challenges. Failure is a great teacher, helping us realize what doesn’t work so we can make changes for the better. As IBM CEO Thomas Watson once said, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”
Sweet dreams. Get a full night’s sleep on a regular basis. Our brains are doing a lot of important work while we sleep, including strengthening neural circuits that enhance mental acuity and help us to regulate our moods when we are awake. Sleep deprivation can lead to cognitive impairments similar to that of intoxication, and often is the prelude to an ill-tempered day.
Strengthen your willpower muscles. Just like exercising arm muscles strengthens our capacity to lift heavy things, exercising willpower muscles in small, everyday behaviors strengthens our ability to stay focused at work. Resist the temptation to check the cellphone for new text messages or emails while walking somewhere, or resist the temptation to get the candy bar when in the checkout line at the grocery store. That will allow willpower muscles to become stronger and, in turn, resistant to temptations that could sidetrack us in other aspects of our lives.
Introduce variety into your day-to-day activities. Human beings are attracted to novelty, and we can get bored if we have to do the same thing over and over. Changing things up every once in a while by taking on new projects, or by doing the same task but with music in the background, or by interacting with different people, can be one way to introduce variety and remain motivated to complete a task.
Stop comparing yourself to others. It’s hard to avoid tuning into what everyone else is doing, who just got the latest raise or promotion, or who’s moving into a new house or going on a fancy vacation. But social comparison is one of the biggest barriers to our overall happiness and motivation. Redirecting attention to our own internal standards for success and making progress based on what’s realistic for us — instead of getting caught up in how we measure up to others — can go a long way for our psychological health and productivity.
Reach out and connect with someone. Nothing is more important for our psychological health than high-quality friendships. Find an activity that allows you to get together with friends on a regular, ongoing basis. A weekly happy hour, poker night or TV show ensures consistency and momentum in your social interactions. People with high-quality relationships are not only happier, they’re also healthier. They recover from illnesses more quickly, live longer and enjoy more enriched lives.
Limit time on social media. Facebook and Instagram often exaggerate how much better off others are compared with how we might feel about ourselves at the moment. Many studies have shown that too much time spent on social media usually is associated with lower levels of self-esteem, optimism and motivation while leaving people feeling — ironically enough — less socially connected to others.
Use your phone in the way phones were originally intended. The next time you are tempted to use your phone to scroll through social media, scroll through your list of contacts instead. Find someone to call or FaceTime. The happiness you derive from an authentic connection with another person will be far greater than any comments or likes you get on social media.
Practice gratitude. It’s easy to get bogged down with life’s inevitable hassles, so make an effort to direct attention to things that are still going well. On the way home from work, fill the time that could go toward ruminating over bad parts of your day with the things that went well. Study after study has shown gratitude to be one of the simplest yet most robust ways to increase psychological well-being."
Practicing positive thinking and gratitude can help you learn to be a glass-half-full person, even if you may not be right now. Gratitude makes sleeping 8 hours possible. Grateful people tend to sleep better, longer, easier, and more each night. Gratitude facilitates good mental health. Practicing gratitude is one of the most reliable methods for increasing contentment and life satisfaction and reducing depression. Gratitude promotes physical health. Studies suggest gratitude helps to lower blood pressure, reduce the effects of an illness, and pay less attention to pain. Gratitude strengthens any solid relationship. Expressions of sincere gratitude for each other correlates with satisfaction in a relationship. Gratitude is contagious.
As Kim et al. observe, "Overall, findings suggest optimism may be an important psychosocial resource for extending life span in older adults." These explanations are intuitively logical, and while we’re likely to learn more about the health benefits of positivity, psychosocial resources and their interactions with each other, individuals who trust in optimism can find in these results some solace from naysayers—and may even outlive them.
Gates, B. (January 4, 2018) Bill Gates: Why I Decided To Edit an Issue of Time. Time
Lichfield, G. (February 27, 2019) Bill Gates explains why we should all be optimists. MIT Technology Review
Borden (June 5, 2019) Survey Says: Glass Half-Full Thinkers Drink More Milk. BordenDairy.com
Kim, E.S., Hagan, K.A., Grodstein, F., DeMeo, D.L., De Vivo, I., Kubzansky, L.D. (2017) Optimism and cause-specific mortality: A prospective cohort study. Am. J. Epidemiol
Kim, E.S., Park, N., Peterson, C. (2011) Dispositional optimism protects older adults from stroke: The Health and Retirement Study. Stroke
Kubzansky, L.D., Sparrow, D., Vokonas, P., Kawachi, I. (2001) Is the glass half empty or half full? A prospective study of optimism and coronary heart disease in the normative aging study. Psychosom. Med.
Matthews, K.A., Raikkonen, K., Sutton-Tyrrell, K., Kuller, L.H. (2004) Optimistic attitudes protect against progression of carotid atherosclerosis in healthy middle-aged women. Psychosom. Med.
Kubzansky, L.D., Wright, R.J., Cohen, S., Weiss, S., Rosner, B., Sparrow, D. (2002) Breathing easy: A prospective study of optimism and pulmonary function in the normative aging study. Ann. Beh
Cooper, K.J. (2007) Being Extroverted: Key to Happiness. Washington University in St. Louis Magazine
Weidman, A.C., Fernandez, K.C., Levinson, C.A., Augustine, A.A., Larsen, R.J., Rodebaugh, T.L. (2012) Compensatory internet use among individuals higher in social anxiety and its implications for well-being. Pers Individ Dif
Bono, T. (2018) When Likes Aren't Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness. New York, New York: Hatchette Book Group
Everding, G. (December 26, 2018) Science-based tips for a better, happier New Year. The Source
1. Lee, L.O., James, P., Zevon, E.S., Kim, E.S., Trudel-Fitzgerald, C., Spiro, A., Grodstein, F., Kubzansky, L.D. (2019). Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Dr. Mark S. Gold is a teacher of the year, translational researcher, author, mentor and inventor best known for his work on the brain systems underlying the effects of opiate drugs, cocaine and food. Read more by Dr. Gold here.