Friday 24 January 2020

Luke O'Neill: 'Why learning to be an eternal optimist might just save your life'

It pays to be self-aware about the language in your head when you think about adversity, writes Luke O'Neill

Illustration depicting a road traffic sign with a positive thinking concept. Blue sky background.
Illustration depicting a road traffic sign with a positive thinking concept. Blue sky background.

Are you a glass half-full or glass half-empty kind of person? Meaning are you an optimist or a pessimist? Recently, science has shown that optimists are much healthier than pessimists when it comes to a wide range of diseases, especially heart disease and stroke. They also have better outcomes when it comes to certain types of cancer. But the question is, can you change your mindset from optimism to pessimism? Well, the good news for 2020 is: yes you can!

The term ''optimism'' refers to an emotional and psychological perspective on life. It's a positive frame of mind and means that a person takes the view of expecting the best outcome from any given situation. Pessimism can be described as a tendency to think negatively. A person who is pessimistic may frequently identify and focus on the negative, or unfavourable, aspects of a situation rather than concentrating on what is going right.

How do you know if you're an optimist or a pessimist? Science will help you. Optimism is commonly quantified using a questionnaire called the Life Orientation Test-Revised (LOT-R). It's available online (https://www.cmu.edu/dietrich/psychology/pdf/scales/LOTR.Scale.pdf). The LOT-R consists of a series of statements (for example "I rarely count on good things happening to me"), that are rated on a five-point scale running from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree". The top score is 24 with a score of 14 average so if you get above this score you're an optimist.

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Several studies have long indicated that more optimistic individuals are more likely to succeed at work and in school, sports, politics, relationships, and other forms of life endeavours. Studies have shown that optimistic students spend more time preparing for exams than their pessimistic counterparts. But using the LOT-R test, scientists were able to measure whether someone was an optimist or a pessimist and then figure out whether being one or the other correlated with their health status.

A big study involving 229-391 individuals showed that optimism was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular events (heart attack, stroke and angina). Optimists had 35pc fewer strokes than those who didn't. And on the other hand, pessimism was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular events. Pessimism was as important a risk factor for other well-established cardiac risk factors like high cholesterol so this is an important study.

There's also evidence that optimism can affect outcomes in cancer. In one study researchers performed a retrospective evaluation of 534 adults diagnosed with lung cancer who had completed an optimism evaluation about 18 years before receiving their lung cancer diagnosis. Patients (both women and men) classified as having an optimistic attitude survived an average of six months longer compared with the patients with a pessimistic attitude. Five-year survival rates for the two groups were 32.9pc for non-pessimists and 21.1pc for pessimists. This was independent of smoking status, cancer stage, treatment, age and gender. It's an important study because they were classified before the diagnosis, not after. Greater optimism also predicted less severe pain intensity in people with cancer. Similarly, in people with arthritis optimism meant significantly less pain being reported.

And finally, guess what? If you're optimistic, you might live longer. A big study on life span revealed that more optimistic men and women demonstrated, on average, an 11 to 15pc longer lifespan, and had 50-70pc greater odds of reaching 85 years old. The effect of optimism on life span was independent of educational attainment, chronic diseases, depression, alcohol use, exercise and diet.

The big question is - can you boost optimism? The good news is yes! There are three ways. First, ''The Best Possible Self Intervention''. The exercise involves identifying some personal, professional and relationship goals, and then imagining a future in which those goals have been reached and everything has turned out as well as possible. In one study, participants were asked to turn this BPS into a coherent and personal story, and then imagine this story for five minutes every day over two weeks. You don't need to worry about what you need to do to achieve your goals, just writing about them suffices.

Secondly, avoid pessimists whenever you can. They will drag you down. Thirdly, develop a habit of making a note at the end of each day of at least three things that went well to help train your brain to notice the good stuff rather than focusing on the not-so-good stuff. This is scientifically proven to work and it's fun. Some people buy a special journal to write in, and these often have inspirational quotes to help you along the way. One of my favourites is from Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time: "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." And finally, try and change your vocabulary. Become as self-aware as possible about the language you use in your own head when you're thinking about some adversity or setback. When you catch yourself using words such as "disaster" and "dreadful", replace them with words such as "challenge" and "unhelpful". This might all seem remarkably simple and a bit twee… but guess what, be optimistic that it might work. There's evidence to suggest that it will help you and who knows… it might even save your life (now there's optimism!)

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