When it comes to the issue of optimism vs. pessimism, public opinion—and science—have long held that optimists have it better. After all, they famously focus on the bright side of things and (according to the dictionary at least) believe that good ultimately predominates over evil in the world. So in 2009, when a study of more than 100,000 over-50 American women proclaimed that optimists live longer, upbeat people everywhere got even more cheery—and pessimists, more grumpy.
Then in 2013 came research saying the opposite: Pessimists are the ones who live longer, because they’re more careful and don’t take the silly risks that those wacky, fun-loving optimists do. While that news probably didn’t make the pessimists any happier (they’re pessimists, after all), optimists, no doubt, chose not to let it get them down.
Confusing? Certainly. So later that same year, the National Institutes of Health published a verdict of sorts on the who-lives-longer debate. Turns out (surprise, surprise), “our survival and wellness require a balance between optimism and pessimism.” Since we here at Preventiondefinitely fall in the “optimism” camp (preventing is all about believing you can keep negative things from happening), we wondered: Are there any qualities optimists really do share?
Turns out, there are. According to University of Miami psychologist Charles S. Carver, PhD, who has written extensively about optimism, when compared with pessimists, optimists may indeed be:
Do optimists bounce back from painful experiences faster than pessimists do? “Yes,” says Carver. “They stay in the struggle because they expect the ship to right itself.” Therefore, it makes sense that optimists are also…
Less likely to quit
Optimists’ hopeful attitude helps them persevere in the face of difficulties, sure that things will come out OK in the long run. But they’re also adaptable. Says Carver: “They… turn to something else when it is clear [their current track] won’t work.”
More likely to exercise
“Optimists are more proactive about doing a variety of things that are health-promoting,” says Carver. However, he acknowledges that there may be some “two-way causality” at play here: Are optimists upbeat because they work out more (all that mood-boosting serotonin!), or do they work out more because they’re upbeat? It’s a bit of a which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg situation.
Quicker to forgive
“There is some evidence that [optimists] are more forgiving,” notes Carver. “Or perhaps [they] look on the best side of what they are being presented with.” Instead of taking slights personally, for example, they may look at other possible causes of the hurtful behavior—then take a more empathetic, bigger-picture view.
According to Carver, optimists are less apt to fixate on nonproductive thought patterns. Not surprisingly, “they’re certainly less likely to dwell on the negative,” he says. Other research has noted that optimists have “positive expectancies” that can contribute to emotional well-being. On a related note, the fact that they’re less likely to stew in their own negative juices means that optimists are also…
Research has shown that optimists have lower levels of the stress-hormone cortisol—thanks in part to the fact that they aren’t worrywarts. “Given the same stressor, they are less aversively reactive to it [than pessimists are],” observes Carver. It should hardly come as a surprise, then, that optimists also tend to be…
Lack of worry means optimists don’t lie awake all night suffering from so-called “monkey brain” syndrome—they’re not tossing and turning and fretting until the wee hours. That could explain why, as research has found, insomniacs score lower on optimism, compared to people who regularly get seven to eight hours of shuteye each night. “If you realize that pessimism incorporates a lot of [nightly] rumination about how bad things are, it makes good sense,” says Carver.
A 2010 study on the benefits of appreciation found that “one’s disposition to experience gratitude is positively related to optimism.” Optimists’ glass-half-full mentality leads them count their blessings and appreciate what they have. One of the side effects of that thankful attitude? It makes optimists…
In 2005, Dennis Charney, MD, dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, coauthored a study of about 750 Vietnam vets — former POWs who had never developed depression or PTSD — and found that two of the men’s most predominant psychological characteristics were optimism and altruism. “It probably takes a certain amount of optimism to be charitable at all,” notes Carver. “Why do it, if it’s not going to somehow make the world better? … [Optimists] expect good deeds to have good repercussions in the world.” And that should be welcome news for all you pessimists out there who could really use a hand.