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The Power of Happy Thoughts

Written by Dr. Kim Aikens on September 24th, 2012

Research has shown that optimistically-minded people are less likely to be hospitalized after coronary bypass surgery, have less pain, fewer physical symptoms and better physical functioning than those who are pessimistic. Over the last several decades, there has been a surge of research on the topic of optimism, with findings strongly linking an optimistic attitude to improved health and wellbeing. What can this mean for you? Quite a bit more than you think.

In the largest study investigating the relationship of optimism and cardiovascular disease, 97,000 women, all healthy at the start of the study, were followed for eight years. At the beginning of the study in 1994, the women were evaluated for levels of optimism using the Life Orientation Test. This test asks questions such as “I usually expect the best” and “if something can go wrong for me it will.” Results showed that women who were optimists had 30% fewer cardiac deaths than pessimists. Overall, the evidence indicated that optimism protected the women studied, while pessimism hurt them. This association held true even holding constant for other risk factors such as depression.

Other areas in which positive self-talk and optimism may also be beneficial include:

So, as with our gratitude exercises for last week, is there a way to increase innate optimism? Indeed there is! To begin, you can use your mindfulness skills to bring awareness to how you describe the good and bad things in your life. In general, pessimistic and optimistic people have definitive, and almost opposite, ways of describing the things that happen in their lives. The optimist will tend to describe a bad thing as temporary and narrow in focus, while the good things are permanent.

How many times have you heard a coworker say, for example, “ I blew that presentation today. I’m so bad at this.” Or maybe, if you listen harder, you might hear your boss optimistically say, “ I got behind and struggled with that situation at work, but I know I’ll nail it next time.”  Although the distinctions may seem subtle, the differences between optimism and pessimism are crucial to both your health and wellbeing.

To Try:

Over the course of the next week, try to keep track of both your optimistic as well as your pessimistic mind scripts, particularly those you might notice at work. I suggest keeping a  piece of paper on your desk this week so you can jot down the things you notice when you begin to think pessimistically. See if you can reframe these things in a positive light, looking at them as temporary situations rather than a permanent problem.

Some other things to try include:

  1. Being open to humor- when you can laugh at life you will feel less stressed.
  2. Surround yourself with positive people- try to be sure those in your life are positive, giving you healthy feedback and social support.
  3. Follow a healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise.
  4. Follow a simple positive self talk rule- don’t say anything to yourself that you would not say to someone else!

Find out how optimistic you tend to be. Take this great test for optimism from the University of Pennsylvania here (you will need to create a log in name and password).

Kim Aikens

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