Become an optimist and improve your health

AUG 13, 2015
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You may think that optimism and pessimism are traits you’re stuck with, but they’re not. Optimism and pessimism are largely learned habits. Changing the way that you think and talk to yourself can improve your physical and emotional well-being, because your body speaks its mind.


Being more optimistic and feeling more in control can:

  • boost your immunity against colds and infections
  • prolong your life if you’re older or facing a life-threatening illness
  • reduce your sick days and symptoms of illness
  • help you recover more quickly from surgery

What makes an optimist?


Optimists seek out, remember, and expect positive experiences. They learn to:

  • remember the positive events in the past
  • focus on the present
  • see what can be done in the future instead of what can’t happen
  • see threats as challenges or problems to be solved
  • believe the world makes sense and their actions make a significant difference

Half-full or half-empty?


Optimists and pessimists explain their fortunes to themselves in completely different ways. Optimists thoroughly enjoy good events, while pessimists minimize them.

Optimists Pessimists
See setbacks as temporary See setbacks as permanent
See failure only in the event See failure throughout their lives
Blame bad things on external causes Blame themselves for bad things
See good events as permanent See good events as temporary
See good in their whole life Limit the good event to one life area
Take credit for good events See good events as luck

The limits of optimism


Being an optimist doesn’t mean you’re not touched by life’s misfortunes or never have a negative thought. Even optimists don’t feel great all the time. There are times when negative feelings are healthy and appropriate:


  • When a loved one dies, it’s okay to feel sad.
  • When someone offends you, anger may be appropriate and may help the offender change his or her behavior.
  • When you feel threatened, anxiety may help you take action. It’s better to have a suspicious lump checked out than to ignore it, or change your lifestyle after a heart attack than to hope you’ll regain your health without making changes.

Moreover, being an optimist can’t fix all health problems. A positive attitude can help keep you healthy, but it’s only 1 health factor among many. Your genes, environment, nutrition, exercise, and smoking play a role, and sometimes no amount of positive thinking can keep you from getting sick, though it can help you prolong your survival and maximize your quality of life.

Need a little help?


Explore your options for learning positive thinking techniques and achieve a more balanced perspective.



Source: Adapted with permission from the Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook (as published under the title Mind & Body Health Handbook), David Sobel, MD, and Robert Ornstein, PhD, 1996


Reviewed by: Andrew Bertagnolli, PhD and Craig Robbins, MD, July 2013


Additional Kaiser Permanente reviewers


© 2013 Kaiser Permanente

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