Positive Thinking and Health: Are They Connected?

Published on Jun 05, 2019

Could having an optimistic, positive attitude actually help keep you healthy? There’s some evidence that it might. What’s more, research suggests that there are things you can do—even if you’re not so much of a positive person—to help improve your attitude and outlook.

How your attitude may affect your health

A number of studies suggest that having an optimistic attitude—the general feeling that good things will happen—may be connected with health benefits, such as improved cholesterol levels, a boost in your immune response, and a lower risk of death from conditions like heart disease.

A 2016 study from the Harvard School of Public Health, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, evaluated how a positive attitude relates to health. Over 70,000 women (with an average age of about 70) were assessed according their level of optimism. After tracking them for six years, and after ruling out factors such as financial and social status, overall health, history of depression, and other issues, the researchers found that having an optimistic outlook was associated with a lower risk of death.

Keep in mind that this research doesn’t prove that being optimistic will make you healthier or help you live longer. Instead, it just shows that attitude and health may be connected. Even so, studies like these suggest that positive thinking could be good for you overall as a kind of healthy habit, like getting enough sleep and eating right.

What if you’re not a positive person?

This research may seem like great news if you’re a glass half-full type of person. But what if you’re not?

Don’t worry. Here’s some good news: studies suggest that optimism might be learned. So it’s possible that you can become more optimistic. We don’t know yet if these techniques have long-lasting benefits—or if they might help protect or improve your health in the long run. But you might want to give them a try and see how they make you feel.

Four ways to help boost positive thinking

Be grateful. Every day, spend a few minutes thinking about—or writing down—the people and things you’re grateful for. Some people do this in bed before going to sleep. Some research shows that focusing on gratitude can make you feel happier and reduce stress.

Imagine your best possible self. Think about how you want your life to turn out—in terms of your personal life, relationships, and work. Write it down as a story. Then spend five minutes each day imagining that possible future. One study found that people who did this every day for two weeks became more positive in their outlook.

Share good news. A lot of people naturally turn to friends and family for support when things go wrong. But how about when things go right? Make an effort to share the good news in your life.

Push back against negative thoughts. When something doesn’t go as planned, is your first thought to blame some part of your personality? Next time that happens, stop yourself and come up with a more specific explanation. For example, if you didn’t exercise like you planned last week, don’t just call yourself “lazy.” Think about what was going on and how it was hard to fit in exercise. Studies have shown that explaining events by focusing on specifics (what you had to do last week) instead of bigger issues that are harder to change (your personality) can help improve your attitude.

Good luck! We’ll be trying out these strategies ourselves!

References

  • 1. Attitudes and Cancer – American Cancer Society.Accessed January 25, 2017.
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  • 3. Gable SL, Reis HT, Impett EA, Asher ER. What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2004;87(2):228-245.
  • 4. Giltay EJ, Kamphuis MH, Kalmijn S, Zitman FG, Kromhout D. Dispositional optimism and the risk of cardiovascular death: The Zutphen Elderly Study. Arch Intern Med. 2006;166(4):431-436. Accessed January 25, 2017.
  • 5. Hershberger PJ. Prescribing happiness: positive psychology and family medicine. Fam Med. 2005;37(9):630-634.Accessed January 25, 2017.
  • 6. Kim ES, Hagan KA, Grodstein F, DeMeo DL, De Vivo I, Kubzansky LD. Optimism and cause-specific mortality: a prospective cohort study. Am J Epidemiol. 2017;185(1):21-29.
  • 7. Meevissen YMC, Peters ML, Alberts HJEM. Become more optimistic by imagining a best possible self: Effects of a two week intervention. J Behav Ther & Exp Psychiat. 2011;42:371-378.
  • 8. Risk Factors for Cancer – National Cancer Institute.Accessed January 25, 2017.
  • 9. O’Leary K, Dockray S. The effects of two novel gratitude and mindfulness interventions on well-being. J Altern Complement Med. 2015;21(4):243-245.
  • 10. Segerstrom SC, Sephton SE. Optimistic expectancies and cell-mediated immunity: the role of positive affect. Psychol Sci. 2010;21(3):448-455.Accessed January 25, 2017.
  • 11. Seligman MEP, Steen TA, Park N, Peterson C. Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. Am Psychol. 2005;60(5):410-421.Accessed January 25, 2017.
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