Take charge of your health. Sign up for HealthyWomen newsletters:

Healthy Living

Find out more about:
Change Your Outlook, Change Your Life

Share on:

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).

Whatever the source of their beliefs, optimists cope in ways that are generally beneficial to their health. They try to manage, reduce or eliminate the stressors or problems they face. That can produce positive effects on the immune system.

Studies show that optimists are less likely to be hospitalized after coronary bypass surgery and more likely to recover normal life function quickly, live longer after being diagnosed with various cancers and have better outcomes after undergoing angioplasty, Dr. Scheier says.

Read More: Laughter Really Is Good Medicine

So is the way to be healthier really as simple as putting on a happy face? Although behaving like an optimist can be good for your body in the long run, Dr. Segerstrom says it may cost a lot in the short run.

"No personality type is a magic bullet for health, and optimism has its Achilles' heel," she says. Although optimistic coping strategies help you feel happier and more able to achieve goals, "They also consume more energy than moping around," she points out, which can produce worse immune function.

"Most of the time, optimism and its typical coping style are associated with better immune function, but it's also important to recognize that that isn't always true," Dr. Segerstrom says.

Change is possible

If you're more of a pessimist, all this talk about the wonders of optimism probably isn't helping you feel better. But pessimism and optimism are really just two ways of thinking about the same thing.

"Rather than trying to change someone's expectancies for the future and their orientation to life, try to change how they cope," Dr. Scheier says. That means using more of optimism's adaptive problem-solving and less of pessimism's inaction when confronting stresses such as health problems.

Read More: Staying Strong in Uncertain Times

Dr. Segerstrom suggests paying more attention to the positive aspects of a situation, setting goals and learning how to achieve them.

"I have seen, over a 10-year period, that people who changed in terms of their optimism also changed in terms of their mental health and the number of days they were affected by physical health problems like pain, respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms such as stomachache and wheezing," she says.

"If natural change in optimism has benefits for health, then it seems reasonable that intentional change in optimism could also help," says Dr. Segerstrom.

And the payoff could be sizable. According to researcher Becca R. Levy, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology and psychology, Yale School of Public Health, people with greater optimism and more positive views of aging have longer life spans—by as much as 7.5 years. "They have better functional health over time as well," Dr. Levy says.