Tag Archives: Learned Optimism

On Glasses Half Empty and Half Full. Part V: An Optimistic Attitude Bodes Well

glasshalffullcloudy mountains


Another positive health finding for learned optimism: According to a study published in the August 10 issue of Circulation, women who have a more optimistic view of life, who are more cheerful and trusting, are less likely to develop heart trouble than those who take a pessimistic view of life.

The report of The Women’s Health Initiative, which has tracked more than 97,000 postmenopausal American women between the ages of 50 and 79 for more than eight years examined psychosocial and social factors and their effect on the health of postmenopausal women, among other factors. Optimism was measured by a questionnaire on whether a woman agreed with such statements as “In unclear times, I usually expect the best.” The questions measuring cynicism asked about agreement with such statements as “It is safer to trust no one” and “I have often had to take orders from people who did not know as much as I did.”

Women within the highest 25 percent of optimism scores had a 9 percent lower chance of developing heart disease and a 14 percent lower chance of dying of any cause. Women with the highest degree of cynical hostility were 16 percent more likely to die than those with the most trust in their fellow humans.

There are several possible explanations for the new finding, according to lead author and University of Pittsburgh researcher, Dr. Hilary Tindle. Money might well be involved, since “optimism is associated with higher income and education,” she said. But curiously, “the level of socioeconomic status when a woman was young was better associated with outcome than current status,” Tindle said. 45191

Three broad categories off possibilities beyond that are posited by Dr. Tindle:

Lifestyle factors. “Optimistic women had more stable risk profiles, with less high blood pressure and diabetes. They didn’t smoke as much and tended to exercise more. So their lower risk might just be associated with living healthier.”

Optimists may be more likely to follow their doctors advice more faithfully. “Previous studies have shown that optimists tend to follow the diet they are told to follow.”

A woman’s outlook on life might affect how she responds to stress. Pessimism and cynical hostility might lead to higher blood pressure, higher heart rate and other physical risk factors.

Is it possible to change one’s outlook? To become a more optimistic, less cynical and hostile person? To go beyond ‘anger management’ (so in vogue these days) to a more essential change of world view? Because this study certainly suggests that would be one terrific idea. Now!

Absolutely. Two requirements:

The lightbulb has to want to change: you need motivation and the desire and ability to stick with it.
You need to follow a consistent practice: committing to a good program, therapist, teacher who can teach you techniques designed to be effective for you.

Change of this nature takes practice and time.

But there’s increasing incentive. As Dr. Tindle notes, “One’s view of the world and your perspective can play an important role in your health. This study demonstrates the role and significance of the connection between the mind and the body. Its just another reason to try to look at the bright side of life.”

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.


On Fireworks beyond the 4th of July

fireworksI love fireworks. Love them. The light. The colors. The crackle of excitement, the explosives that signal fun, not guns. The way we all wait in anticipation, strangers united, staring in the same direction, hopeful. Last night, watching Macy’s fireworks on the Hudson, I was so struck by the sense of joyous New York community: people on private yachts and packed party boats, on rooftops, standing on the docks, even watching on tv – New Yorkers coming together to clap and laugh and blow horns and share in the oohs and ahs of the spectacular. Echoes of other, more tragic, explosions somehow bringing us all closer, more appreciative… Pushing Recession 2009 out of mind for an hour of shared optimism and delight…

In life, most of us also prefer the occasional dollop of excitement and surprise, enough explosiveness to surprise us and get the adrenaline going. But beyond adolescence, the drama and explosion generally work best in infrequent, controlled doses. Enough to light up the sky with the fabulous, to let us sigh together at the duds, and to leave us sated and happy to settle into the calm that follows.

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

On Glasses Half-Empty or Half-Full. Part II: Is Optimism Really Better than Pessimism?

glasshalfemptyOn the way to the “How to” portion of the psychology of Learned Optimism, a small but important detour.

Query: Is optimism always the better way to go?

It would seem so. After all, a positive attitude is certainly the great American way: Westward ho! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps (bootstraps?)! If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. Land of opportunity, culture of self-improvement. Work hard, fly right. No contest.

Consider this: Recession 2009

Rising unemployment. Declining real income, industrial production, wholesale-retail sales, consumer confidence. In the U.S., in the world.

The Optimist – sees bad events as temporary setbacks and presumes personal power to alter them.
We are on our way! The dollar’s the global reserve currency. Let the stimulus package, health care system overhaul , new lending programs and industry rescues do their work. Declining consumer prices mean we’ll keep inflation in check.
We are solving this! Roll up your sleeves and buy, invest!The worst is over!

The Pessimist – sees bad events as likely to last a long time and presumes no personal power to alter them.
Are we on our way to hyperinflation? stagflation? All this new money meets lack of demand. Higher prices in a weak economy with rising unemployment is a dangerous combination. Countering stagflation can worsen inflation, and vice versa.
We are sunk! Roll up in a ball or sell, short! The worst is coming!

Query: Did irrational optimism play a part in getting us (You and me. We’ll get into the financial institutions and the government another time.) into this overspending, overleveraging, living on credit cards, investing in things we didn’t understand, taking out mortgages we couldn’t afford, not saving enough for the future (along with a whole lot more) mess?

Did we see what we wanted to see (think Bernie Madoff), believe what we wanted to believe (housing prices always go up), spend what we wanted to spend (doesn’t it seem that everything’s “designer” now?), get lazy and not do our due diligence and trust the experts instead – all because we want to believe things always get better? If only…

Maybe, just maybe, we need to see the glass as both half-empty and half-full. Couldn’t hurt, might help.

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

On Glasses Half-Empty or Half-Full. Part I: The Research

glasshalfemptyTough times, right? It’s easy to feel pessimistic. Well, read on. More evidence that an optimistic outlook correlates with better health, both physical and psychological.* After this week’s post on depression, that’s a pretty positive thing!

Results of a longitudinal study, published in the May issue of Health Psychology, provide yet more support for the value of learned optimism. Laura D. Kubzansky, PhD and colleagues of the Harvard School of Public Health tracked 569 individuals from age 7 to their mid-30s to see if certain personality traits influenced health later in life. Their findings: Children who were able to react less negatively to situations at age 7 – who viewed the world through the lens of optimism rather than pessimism – reported better general health and fewer illnesses 30 years later.

According to Dr. Kubzansky, “Certain characteristics already evident early in life are likely to spark positive or negative emotions, and also influence biological and behavioral responses to stress. Some traits may contribute to developing healthier behaviors and better social relationships, and ultimately more resilience in mid-life.”

Trained observers rated the 7 year olds’ behaviors, which were then assigned to three personality attributes, one of which was distress-proneness (the tendency to react negatively to situations). To determine adult health, participants rated their health and reported whether they had any of the following illnesses: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, asthma, arthritis, stroke, bleeding ulcer, tuberculosis or hepatitis.

For all the participants, having a more positive outlook (along with the ability to pay focused attention) in youth affected health the most. These effects were greater for women, suggesting that women may be more sensitive to interactions among emotion, behavior and biology, perhaps predisposing them more to certain health risks, such as heart disease. No differences in effects were found across race or ethnicity, childhood health or socicoeconomic status.

“Behavior and emotions generally linked to certain temperaments play a crucial role in long-term health,” Says Dr. Kubzansky. “Fortunately, early childhood characteristics can be shaped and guided by social, family and peer interactions. Interventions can focus on altering certain ways of responding and behaviors that frequently accompany particular traits to prevent certain diseases.”

Next up: Part II: How to change that half-empty glass into a half-full one. A slightly tougher task, so give me a few days, please?

*With special thanks to the American Psychological Association Public Affairs Office and DS who inspired this series.

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.