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Harvard Health Blog
5 ways to hold on to optimism — and reap health benefits
- By Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
In these turbulent times, it may be a struggle to maintain a glass half full view of life. A poll just released by the Associated Press on New Year’s Day indicated that most Americans came out of 2016 feeling pretty discouraged. Only 18% feel things for the country got better, 33% said things got worse, and 47% believe things were unchanged from 2015.
However, 55% of those surveyed said they expect their own lives to improve in 2017. If you are among this majority, it may serve you well. A growing body of research indicates that optimism — a sense everything will be OK — is linked to a reduced risk of developing mental or physical health issues as well as to an increased chance of a longer life.
One of the largest such studies was led by researchers Dr. Kaitlin Hagan and Dr. Eric Kim at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Their team analyzed data from 70,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study, and found that women who were optimistic had a significantly reduced risk of dying from several major causes of death over an eight-year period, compared with women who were less optimistic. The most optimistic women had a 16% lower risk of dying from cancer; 38% lower risk of dying from heart disease; 39% lower risk of dying from stroke; 38% lower risk of dying from respiratory disease; and 52% lower risk of dying from infection.
Yes, you can acquire optimism.
Even if you consider yourself a pessimist, there’s hope. Dr. Hagan notes that a few simple changes can help people improve your outlook on life. Previous studies have shown that optimism can be instilled by something as simple as having people think about the best possible outcomes in various areas of their lives,” she says. The following may help you see the world through rosier glasses:
1. Accentuate the positive. Keep a journal. In each entry, underline the good things that have happened, as well as things you’ve enjoyed and concentrate on them. Consider how they came about and what you can do to keep them coming.
2. Eliminate the negative. If you find yourself ruminating on negative situations, do something to short-circuit that train of thought. Turn on your favorite music, reread a novel you love, or get in touch with a good friend.
3. Act locally. Don’t fret about your inability to influence global affairs. Instead, do something that can make a small positive change — like donating clothes to a relief organization, helping clean or replant a neighborhood park, or volunteering at an after-school program.
4. Be easier on yourself. Self-compassion is a characteristic shared by most optimists. You can be kind to yourself by taking good care of your body, eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep. Take stock of your assets and concentrate on them. Finally, try to forgive yourself for past transgressions (real or imagined) and move on.
5. Learn mindfulness. Adopting the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment and accepting it without judgment can go a long way in helping you deal with unpleasant events. If you need help, many health centers now offer mindfulness training. There are also a multitude of books and videos to guide you.
About the Author
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
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No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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