September 27, 2016
Two Cheers For Optimism
Be Well

Two Cheers For Optimism

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  |  

It makes sense that a cheerful spirit goes along with good health. An optimist is more likely to take steps to stay healthy—eat well, maintain a healthy weight, get necessary tests and exercise.

A recent review in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that optimism predicts positive physical health outcomes for all kinds of conditions—from pregnancy and heart disease to cancer and immune function—and that an optimistic disposition is associated with social connectedness, healthy aging and longevity.

The 2009 results from the Women’s Health Initiative, the government-sponsored study of 100,000 postmenopausal women, linked cynicism and hostility with an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. Optimism, once again, tended to go along with longer life.

I am an optimist myself and, as a practicing physician, was glad to encounter patients with a positive outlook. On the other hand, optimism can lead to wishful thinking. If you are trying to lose weight, optimism might lead you to underestimate the calories in a slice of pie. You might think, “Oh, I am not likely to get colon cancer,” and skip your colonoscopy.

I take my daily statin because I know it will help improve my cholesterol levels (optimism), but also because I fear having a heart attack (pessimism).

Another problem with all this enthusiasm for optimism is that it might encourage a “blame-the-victim” attitude. If cynical people are more prone to heart disease, does that mean their illness is their own fault?

As Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her new book, Bright-Sided, women with breast cancer are often assaulted with the idea that negative thinking brought on their cancer and that positive thinking will cure it. This is surely not the case. Following a course of treatment is the key thing—and if optimism makes you willing to do that, then optimism is useful.

What if you just aren’t an optimist? What if you are fearful and mistrustful? Your life experience may have taught you pessimism. And if you have experienced trauma or loss, are ill and in pain or are chronically depressed, you need more help than just being told that optimism is good for you.

If pessimism is overwhelming you, your best course is to seek professional help—counseling, a support group, a pain clinic and possibly medication for depression.

Wherever you are on the optimism/pessimism spectrum, comfort yourself with the thought that pessimists can acquire good habits, too. Healthy optimism should be accompanied by a healthy skepticism. Realism, no doubt, is the best policy.