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Why optimists enjoy better health

According to a series of studies, optimists enjoy better health than pessimists. The May issue of Harvard Men’s Health Watch explores possible reasons for this connection.

Many studies have reported that optimism influences health. Among the findings:

  • Optimistic coronary bypass patients were only half as likely as pessimists to require re-hospitalization.
  • Highly pessimistic men were three times more likely to develop hypertension.
  • People with positive emotions had lower blood pressures.
  • In one study, the most pessimistic men were more than twice as likely to develop heart disease compared with the most optimistic.

These results argue persuasively that optimism is good for health. But people who are healthy are likely to have a brighter outlook than people who are ill, so perhaps optimism is actually the result of good health instead of the other way around. To counter this argument, scientists have adjusted their analyses to account for pre-existing medical conditions. The studies that made these adjustments found that existing illnesses did not tarnish the benefits of optimism.

One explanation is behavioral. It is possible that optimists enjoy better health and longer lives because they lead healthier lifestyles, build stronger social support networks, and get better medical care. In addition, optimism itself may have biological benefits, such as lower levels of stress hormones and less inflammation.

Finally, heredity may explain some of the link. It is possible that genes predispose some people to optimism, and that the same genes affect health and longevity. The Harvard Men’s Health Watch suggests that more study is needed because it’s likely that multiple mechanisms are involved.

Also in this issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch

  • Treating prostate cancer, Part I: The big picture
  • Optimism and your health
  • Medical memo: Insecticides, testosterone, and fertility
  • On call: Pseudoephedrine and blood pressure
  • On call: Discolored respiratory mucus

More Harvard Health News »


About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.