Change Your Outlook, Change Your Life

Change Your Outlook, Change Your Life

Do you believe the sun will come out tomorrow? Positivity may be the key to good health.

Two women visit their doctors and receive the same diagnosis: they have heart disease requiring coronary bypass surgery. Both women are the same age and weight, with no other health problems. Neither has a family history of cardiac problems.

Yet, as medical treatment goes forward, one woman is less likely than the other to be hospitalized again after surgery and more likely to take beneficial actions such as entering a cardiovascular rehabilitation exercise program, changing her diet and seeking social support. What's more, that woman is also more likely to have a lower risk of death than the other.

Why? Same diagnosis, two interpretations.

Let's listen to the little voices in the women's heads as they leave their doctors' offices after hearing the news.

The first woman is thinking, "This is awful, just like everything else that happens to me. Now I'm never going to be able to do the things I had hoped to do." Inside the second woman's head, we hear, "This is scary, but I'm glad they figured out what was going on. Now I have to find out everything I can about getting back to normal after the surgery."

The second woman is what psychologists call a "dispositional optimist," meaning that her expectations are generally positive. Like many optimists, she takes action through health-enhancing behaviors, even under stressful circumstances.

The first woman has a more pessimistic viewpoint. Pessimists may create more distress for themselves by distorting, denying and avoiding the situation, says Michael F. Scheier, PhD, professor and head, Department of Psychology, Carnegie-Mellon University, and codirector of the Pittsburgh Mind-Body Center.

"Optimists tend to adjust better to health threats and conditions than pessimists do," says Dr. Scheier, who has researched the effects of optimism on coronary bypass and cancer patients, among others. "There's a lot of evidence out there to suggest that optimism may be important in determining one's physical health status."

What makes an optimist?

Some optimistic and pessimistic people are simply hard-wired to their attitudes. "About 25 percent of dispositional optimism comes from genetic influences," says Suzanne C. Segerstrom, PhD, a researcher on optimism and immunity and associate professor, Department of Psychology, at the University of Kentucky.

How much does the school of hard knocks contribute to our attitudes as adults? "At least 50 percent of dispositional optimism comes from life experience (the remaining amount is unable to be measured)," adds Dr. Segerstrom, author of Breaking Murphy's Law: How Optimists Get What They Want from Life—and Pessimists Can Too (The Guilford Press, 2006).