Pessimists: Things are looking up

Attitudes: Those who have a dark view of the world can teach themselves to lighten up - and possibly live longer

Health & Fitness

March 12, 2000|By Garret Condon | Garret Condon,Hartford Courant

Hey, look on the bright side. If you do, you might just live longer.

And, chin up, pal: You could become an optimist.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., have confirmed what many people already believe: Optimists tend to live longer, healthier lives. Researchers looked at a group of 839 patients who had taken a personality test in the early and mid-1960s. The test graded subjects, who then ranged in age from 15 to 84, as optimists or pessimists, depending on how they explained life events.

Researchers classified 124 as optimistic, 518 as mixed and 197 as pessimistic. The study found that the optimists had a better-than-expected survival rate and the pessimists had a 19 percent increase in the risk of death.

Researchers could not explain how pessimism is associated with a risk of early death, but suggested a mind-body link or an attitude toward medical care, with optimists more positive in seeking and receiving medical help. The results were published in last month's Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Psychologist Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, writing in an accompanying editorial, said pessimism is identifiable and can be changed, so that some people might get therapy to change their thinking about bad events and thereby improve their health.

But can pessimists learn to cheer up? Aren't some people "born" pessimists? Many mental health professionals believe that optimism can be cultivated. For example, you could try jogging over to the sunny side of the street.

Robert Thayer, a professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, is the author of a 1996 book, "The Origin of Everyday Moods." Thayer said most people think of optimism and pessimism as fixed traits. But he and his colleagues find that feelings of optimism and pessimism tend to come and go -- like moods. He said optimism is closely related to our central energy state.

"When we're feeling energetic and calm, we feel optimistic," he said. Feeling tense and tired turns us into pessimists. Thayer said this central energy state is tied into daily biological rhythms. In one study, Thayer found people to be more optimistic in the late morning than in the late afternoon -- when they were more likely to feel tired and tense.

Thayer said so-called born pessimists may be genetically predisposed to a bleaker outlook, but that even these people can buck up by becoming aware of their energy state and managing it.

Exercise can help tremendously, he has found, and it doesn't have to be a full-tilt workout. A brisk, 10-minute walk, he said, can boost optimism.

Psychologist Michael Mercer of the Mercer Group in Barrington, Ill., a Chicago suburb, said optimism is a habit that can be acquired. Mercer is co-author of a 1998 book, "Spontaneous Optimism: Proven Strategies for Health, Prosperity & Happiness." He offers a number of tips for those who would become optimists.

He encourages people to concentrate on what they want in life, not what they don't want. Optimists, he said, focus on solutions rather than problems. In other words, switch from "I hate my boss" to "What can I do to build my career?" After people decide what they want, they should spend more than half their time pursuing their goals.

It's best, he said, to avoid "emotional vampires." These are people who "suck the good feelings right out of your skull" by complaining, moaning and blaming.

Adopt the straight posture and brisk stride of the optimist, use upbeat language (don't say you're "tired," say you're "recharging") and let others see you acting optimistically.

In Connecticut, Dr. Robert Fox, attending psychiatrist at the Portland campus of St. Francis Care Behavioral Health, said helping others can help build optimism.

Pessimists are often those who believe they must be self-reliant and aggressive toward others. Optimists, he said, "discover that cooperation is better than competition." He noted that 12-step recovery programs are built on the idea of healing by helping others heal. He suggested getting a new attitude by performing some community service.

"Here's something you can do: Give away your time," he said. "Do something that's helpful."

Crossing to the sunny side

Is the glass half empty or half full? Psychologist Michael Mercer believes optimism is a habit that can be acquired, despite genetic predispositions toward pessimism. Mercer and others have a few tips for those seeking a more upbeat attitude:

* Exercise: Even a brisk 10-minute walk can improve one's outlook.

* Focus on what you want in life, not what you don't want. And then work toward your goal.

* Avoid "emotional vampires," people who constantly whine and complain.

* Use optimistic language: Don't say you're exhausted; say you're recharging.

* Try to get along: Cooperation is better than competition.

* Perform community service: Give some of your time to help others.

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