Is your glass half full?

Be Optimistic

The insufferable optimist, that perky Pollyanna that always has a smile and a cheerful observation, can be more than most people can take before their morning coffee. Yet optimism has been found to have such tremendous health benefits that even the most jaded of us would do well to sidle up to our optimistic acquaintances and take notes.


Optimism vs. pessimism

What’s the difference? Optimists expect good things from life. When bad stuff inevitably happens, they do not blame themselves or perceive that the negative consequences will hang around forever. Pessimists, on the other hand, assume they are to blame or that the situation is not likely to change. They expect the negative occurrence to affect all aspects of their lives. (1)

An optimist, when turned down for a job, might decide it wasn’t meant to be, and that there were plenty of other employers anxious to pay for her talents. The pessimist might take the rejection as a personal assessment of her failings, and decide getting a job might well be impossible for her.


Optimists and physical health

Studies abound on how optimism improves our physical health. Here are just a few:

  • Optimistic subjects with neck and head cancer were found to have a significantly greater survival rate one year after diagnosis. (2)
  • 309 optimistic middle-aged patients who underwent coronary artery bypass surgery were only half as likely as pessimistic patients to require re-hospitalization six months later. (1)
  • A longitudinal study on blood pressure showed that men evaluated as pessimistic were three times more likely to develop hypertension than their optimistic counterparts, even after other risk factors were controlled. (1)


Optimists cope better

Faced with bad news, pessimists practice classic avoidance and cut and run, ignore the problem and get so bogged down in discouragement that they can’t take any action to improve the situation. Optimists tend to bring better coping mechanisms to the problem-solving table – they focus on the problem and find solutions. If the problem cannot be easily overcome, they revert to emotional coping mechanisms like humor, acceptance and viewing the situation in a more positive light. (3,4)  


That’s great … if you’re an optimist

What about pessimists? Are they doomed to poorer health and feeble coping strategies? Not so, says Barbara Fredrickson, professor of Psychology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who has spent most of her career studying optimism. Everyone can think more positively. She suggests counteracting every negative emotion we experience with at least three sincere positive emotions. (5)

One caveat: faking it won’t cut it. If you don’t sincerely appreciate the smell of roses from your neighbor’s rose garden, saying it won’t make it so. Find truly positive emotions and outman those negative emotions that are dragging down your quality of life.


More on the 3:1 ratio

A great overall look at the power of optimism

More on how optimism helps you cope



  1. Optimism and your health. Harvard Health Publications. Accessed August 25, 2016.
  2. Allison PJ, Guichard C, Fung K, Gilain L. Dispositional optimism predicts survival status 1 year after diagnosis in head and neck cancer patients. J Clin Oncol. 2003;21(3):543–548.
  3. Conversano, C, Rotondo, A, Lensi, E, Della Vista, O, Arpone, F, Reda, MA. Optimism and Its Impact on Mental and Physical Well-Being. Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health. 2010;6:25-29.
  4. Fredrickson, B. The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. Am Psychol. 2001 Mar;56(3):218-226.
  5. Fredrickson, B. Are you getting enough positivity in your diet? Greater Good Berkeley. June 21, 2011.
Dana Vaughan

About Dana Vaughan

Dana completed a Master of Public Health (MPH) and a Master of Social Work (MSW) at San Diego State University, and has worked in family planning education, prenatal counseling, and child development. She loves her mountain bike, her husband, her kids, and her faith—although possibly not in that order.

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