The healing power of optimism

This week I was searching through my old naturopathic textbooks for some new blog topics when I came across a chapter in the book, “Mind Body Health: The Effects of Attitudes, Emotions and Relationships’ by KJ Karren, BQ Hafen, NL Smith and KJ Frandsen about the influence of an optimistic attitude on health status.   The chapter was called, “The Healing Power of Optimism” and it reviews how important your beliefs about a situation are in influencing your health status.

This purpose of this post is to highlight and discuss the main points about the healing power of optimism.

What is optimism?

Looking up the definition of optimism on Dictionary.com I discovered that optimism is:

1.  a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.

2. the belief that good ultimately predominates over evil in the world.

3. the belief that goodness pervades reality.

4. the doctrine that the existing world is the best of all possible worlds.

Overall, an optimist actively chooses to believe that good things will happen and their future will turn out in the best possible way for them.  Since optimism is an active choice, this means that you have control over your beliefs and perceptions of reality.

Once you make this powerful realization, that you have a choice, you can change your perceptions from negative  to positive which can have a beneficial outcome on your health status.

“Happiness, in short, turns out to be more a matter of how you regard your circumstances than of what the circumstances are.”

10 characteristics of optimistic people:

1. An optimist sees the good in a situation.

2. An optimist expects things to go their way.

3. An optimist believes they have the power to control the events in their lives.

4. An optimist will take action to ensure things go their way.  When things do not go their way, they re-evaluate their situation and make the necessary plans to take action in an effort to shift the situation in their favour.

5. An optimist displays perseverance and never gives up focusing on the positive things they are able to control.

6. An optimist can dismiss bad events and interpret them as isolated events without blaming themselves for the negative outcome.

7. An optimist consistently interprets the circumstances in their favour and chooses to internalize the good events.

8. An optimist chooses to view the world through ‘rose-coloured glasses’ meaning that they believe they will be successful and happy in the future.

9. An optimist believes that if something bad were to happen, they will have the ability to easily fix the problem.

10. An optimist knows when to acknowledge they cannot change a situation and successfully manages their unfavourable circumstances through healthy coping mechanisms.

How many of the above characteristics do you identify with and recognize within yourself? If you are familiar with all of them then congratulations, you are laying the foundation for optimal health outcomes! If you can only identify with a couple characteristics, that is ok too since optimism is a conscious choice in behaviour and everyone has the capability to become an optimist if you choose to do so.

This chapter on optimism goes into great detail about specific circumstances where optimism has improved health outcomes.  Here are a few examples demonstrating the potential power of optimism:

1. Researchers at Harvard evaluated the health records and psychological questionnaires completed 40 years ago of a sample of 99 army veterans.  They found that the veterans who, 40 years ago, displayed characteristics of optimism in their responses were significantly healthier 40 years later in both mental and physical health.

2. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center found that the patients with greater optimism had more successful outcomes in a cardiac rehabilitation program where they lowered factors influencing their future risk of a heart attack and stroke.

3.  Studies of university students have found that pessimistic students were sick twice as many days and visited the doctor four times more than optimistic students.  An interesting observation was that most of the illnesses were infectious diseases perhaps providing further support to the field of psychoneuroimmunology.

4.  Optimism may play a role in speeding recovery from surgery in hospitals because optimists are more likely to seek information to improve their recovery after being released from the hospital.

5.  In a survey of physicians who collectively have treated over 100,000 cancer patients, over 90% responded that the most significant factor they have observed in effective cancer treatment was having an attitude of hope and optimism.  An attitude of optimism has also been shown to influence outcomes in women with breast cancer.

A possible explanation for the beneficial outcomes of optimism could be that optimistic people are more likely to pay attention to health risks and behaviours, and then choose to act positively with this information by changing their lifestyle habits in a healthy direction.

Of course, the above examples of optimism influencing health outcomes are extremely complex and the research is in the early stages. Optimism is just one factor in the field of mind body medicine currently being investigated.  Other factors include self-esteem, spirituality, altruism, humour/laughter, guided imagery, the impact of stress and emotional states.

Imagine the power patients would have in influencing their health outcomes by combining the power of their minds with cutting edge medical treatments!

I choose to be an optimist hope that the powerful wholistic approach to medicine which places equal emphasis on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of an individual will be accessed and utilized by everyone in the future.