It seems obvious, but optimists are just more relaxed. They appear to take stressful events in stride. They don’t “sweat the small things.” Their glass-is-half-full approach allows them to stay upbeat, or at least calm, at times when pessimists feel worried, frustrated, or depressed. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? The answer to that question can determine how well you live and how long, according to researchers at the Mayo Clinic.
No matter your age, a positive attitude can boost wellness, says a 30-year study of optimists and pessimists. Researchers found that a hopeful outlook on life can lead to real health benefits, such as reducing chronic pain and your risk of Alzheimer's and heart disease, and can even increase your lifespan. Based on the results of a standard personality test, they concluded that optimistic people were 80 percent more likely to live longer than pessimistic people.
Yet happiness is an illusive concept. Gretchen Rubin, “The Happiness Project” creator and author, notes that being happy is full of paradox. We are told to accept ourselves, but to also expect more from ourselves. We are encouraged to “slow down and smell the roses,” but to push ourselves to use time efficiently. So, how can you be genuinely happy? Rubin suggests that the only real way to be happy is to just be “you” and allow others to be who they are. “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do,” says Rubin. “It doesn’t matter what I wish I were like. I am Gretchen. It’s possible — in fact quite easy — to construct a life quite unrelated to our nature. Just as I must ‘Be Gretchen’ and accept myself, strengths and weaknesses both, I must also accept everyone around me. The fact is, we can change no one but ourselves.”
Seems to be sound advice. Experts agree. Marion Somers, PhD, a geriatric-care manager, says it is not really that hard to be optimistic. By doing a few easy "optimism exercises," like taking a nature walk or playing with grandchildren, you are able to release internal negativity and achieve a calmness in your thoughts. In this way, you can move into a more positive frame of mind.
David Eagleman, PhD, neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, points to stress as a hinderance to thinking, affirming that reducing stress helps you to stay alert and refreshed mentally. As we age, the effectiveness of our brain cells naturally declines, but there are ways to preserve brain function longer by reducing stress. For instance, researchers at Emory University found that meditation can slow down the decline of brain cells. Meditation comes in many forms. Some techniques encourage greater mental focus on a specific object or on your breathing, while others involve awareness of specific thoughts or mental imagery. Transcendental Meditation is a centuries-old method that prescribes letting go of your conscious thought processes to bring on a deep, restful, clarifying state or mind.
In the end, some people will believe that no amount of positivity can change your reality. Pessimists often view themselves as realists. As the say, “It is what it is” after all. You can't change “it” just by changing how you think. Or can you? In a series of classic experiments during the 1970’s, Stanford University researchers offered children a choice to eat one marshmallow immediately, or to wait a little longer for two marshmallows. Not surprisingly, many children could not resist the temptation and opted for immediate gratification. But some children held out for the higher reward. What was the difference between those who waited and those who didn’t? Successful children diverted their thoughts to focus on anything except the marshmallow. Among other lessons, this experiment shows us the power we have to obtain a desired state of mind. It is possible for you to choose optimism and to choose life.
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Optimists vs Pessimists: Survival Rate Among Medical Patients Over a 30-year Period.
Maruta T, Colligan RC, Malinchoc M, Offord KP. Division of Adult Psychiatry, Mayo Clinic Rochester, MN