Being hopeful and confident about the future or the successful outcome of something is actually unnatural to us human beings. Some research shows that people who are pessimistic are in fact more realistic. Evolutionarily, we were programmed to be pessimistic, to imagine the worst-case scenario, which then kicked our flight/fight system into gear and enabled us to get away from many predators, such as the lions, tigers, and bears that could and would have eaten us.
So just because we were programmed for decades and decades to be pessimistic, does that mean always imagining the worst-case scenario is helpful to us today? No. The modern world looks very different from that of our lions, tigers, and bears days … now, I am in no way saying that we do not have predators or threats, because we all know we do, and lately our world does seem pretty scary. But our threats have a much different type of makeup, and pessimism doesn't seem to be the answer for survival.
Throughout my research, I have found very little benefit in "pessimism" for humans today. I completed my doctorate in clinical psychology, and being interested in the half-full glass for almost all my life, I decided to take an unusual path during my graduate career—I made it my business to study and practice optimism.
I believe that the practice of optimism in no way implies a perma-smile or a forever rosy outlook. Practicing optimism means to increase the positive future thoughts one has about themselves and the world around them. Optimism, like much else, is looked at on a spectrum. In my practice, I help someone figure out just where they are on that spectrum and what their personal "Optimism Factor" is. Then, together, we use specific practices and skills to continue traveling upward from there.
Here's why it's a good thing to be more optimistic:
1. Optimism increases longevity.
Yep, research points toward people who have an increased sense of optimism living longer—and not just the type of life that racks up extra days and years, but they actually live more FULLY. Their quality of life is improved, and their lives are lengthened. A study done at the University of North Carolina found that the most pessimistic people in the study had a 43 percent higher rate of death than the most optimistic people in the study.
2. Optimistic people get sick much less often than pessimistic people.
And when an optimistic person is sick, they heal and bounce back at a much quicker rate than their pessimistic counterparts. Optimistic people are less likely to get colds and common respiratory viruses, too.
3. Optimistic people report lower stress levels in difficult times.
They're less overwhelmed when life gets tough. This was further studied and in fact showed optimistic people showed less cortisol and inflammation in their blood, reduced adrenaline, and increased immune functioning.
4. Optimistic people are happier.
Optimistic people report much higher levels of happiness and other positive emotions. When people are in a positive mood, their executive brain function is better, and they are much more able to problem-solve and be productive.
5. Optimistic people sleep better.
Yep, optimistic people report increased quality of sleep and overall restfulness.
6. Optimistic people have elevated social relationships and greater quality support systems.
7. Optimistic people achieve more goals and personal successes.
8. Optimism helps protect our hearts and circulation.
Optimistic people have better blood pressure and are less likely to have hypertension or heart disease.
Being the winner of the realistic contest doesn't sound all that great anymore, does it?
The good news is, although pessimism is actually more natural to us, and it's true some people are just more optimistic than others, optimism can be learned. It is a muscle we all possess that just needs to be worked out. I've devoted my professional and personal life to helping others and myself learn optimism.