5 ways to hold on to optimism — and reap health benefits

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.



  1. Lynnzy Fox

    In 2014 my daughter asked me to take care of her three daughters, so her and her husband could go on vacation. I said I would take care of the baby only at my house. She said, I said I would take care of all three girls. She said, because I was so unreliable that her mother-in-law had to change her vacation plans and my daughter had to hire a babysitter that she did not know, so they could go on there vacation. I had turned my house into a nursery to take care of her girls, whenever they wanted to go out. My husband and I always took care and loved those girls. One day after months of my daughter not speaking to us for months in 2014, we got a call that our daughter’s, oldest daughter Taylor, who was ten was ill at school and would we pick her up. We stopped everything we were doing to go get her. Meanwhile, the school nurse called us and said, your daughter does not want you to pick her up. She had a friend go get her. We were devastated. The school nurse did not know our daughter considered me unreliable, because I didn’t take care of the girls when they went on vacation.
    The end of 2014, I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer and thyroid cancer. My daughter was there, when I had half my colon removed and my thyroid removed, but our relationship has never been the same. I asked her why and she said “I love you, but you have proven yourself as unreliable.” Her dad and I are the most reliable people. We have always been there for her and the children. We are not speaking again, because she joined her mother-in-laws sorority, and they took a trip to Florida together for a week. When my daughter returned, she put over 20 pictures on Facebook with her mother-in-law and sorority sisters with her. She has no pictures of her and I together on Facebook. Yes, I am jealous, yes I am deeply hurt that she could possibly call me unreliable, when that would not be in anyone else’s’ description of me or my husband. I am in such a depression right now. I asked her to say she was sorry for hurting me, by not letting me pick up Taylor. She said, you are not reliable, so I will not say I am sorry! She said, she agrees that, I have always been there for her and the girls, but she cannot forgive that, I caused her and so many people problems, when I didn’t take care of the three girls. I know I am hurting, myself by being so angry at my daughter. It will mean never seeing her or my three granddaughters again.
    Sad in Illinois.

  2. Asha

    good article, motivational and refreshing and empowering. mindfulness may sound simple but it can be very challenging, but when mastered it is the greatest stress reliever and paves way for optimism.

  3. Vernon Cronen

    If you can keep an optimistic outlook when others cannot, then perhaps you do not fully grasp the situation.

  4. Peter

    Ah, Beverly, acting locally is a great idea and lots of people do so when they feel helpless and small but organizing and engaging in political activities to change policies at the national level is just as important. Neither is mutually exclusive; joining with others as millions did over the weekend in global womens’ marches, is empowering and healthy.

  5. Mailiha ahmed

    wow, nice article it’s very intresting and motivational thanks for the sharing.

  6. Sharon Smith

    These days, acting locally is no longer enough. Getting involved in the larger political issues facing our country is vital.

    • Jonathan Allen

      Right On! Sharon!
      That’s why my wife and I are the longest term volunteers at Bikes Not Bombs, helping to setup bicycle shops from Deepsloot, South Africa to Northern Uganda, as well as all over Central America and even New Orleans after the flood.

  7. david rusling

    be around positive people as much as possible . Plan your time ahead when you know when the winter is coming and you might fall to the blues after xmas. We know it will come so fill your time with events or hobbies that make you happy to do and thankful. Start as you awake with positive things of the day and give thanks for the fresh day.Stress builds easy and its very hard to give away.Learn a new thing,record the positives ,it will build your resources when it hits again.

  8. Nancy Martin

    Great motivational post for life ,health benefit.how can acquire optimism in you life ,this post help you much and also for discipline life.Our Medical Dissertations writing services help to those students who are doing PhD or Master’s in Medical science with effective research content .

  9. Donna Macissac

    One way to make new habits stick is to perform them consciously. To that end, when you implement your Personalized Diet Plan, start a journal. A short, undemanding journal, which you can call anything you like, from My Food Diary to My Journey Through Hell and Back. Write down how you feel. Write down how you cheated that day, and with which foods. Write a rant about the telephone company, write anything you think may help you succeed. The important thing is to write in it daily. This simple act will insure you stay conscious.

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