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How a scientific framework for exploring the power of optimism developed

Having an upbeat or optimistic attitude has been shown to benefit your heart, boost longevity and reduce feelings of loneliness. But there was a time, not so long ago, when the scientific community's attitude toward research on such mind-body interactions wasn't so positive.

In a Q&A published today in the Atlantic, Carnegie Mellon psychologist Michael Scheier, PhD, reflects on how research he published in 1985 with Charles Carver, PhD, a professor at the University of Miami, helped create a scientific framework for studying the power of optimism.

On the topic of how researchers' understanding of positive thinking has advanced, Scheier says:

A lot of research has been done since we published our first paper, and the vast majority has examined the relationship of optimism and well-being. I think it's now safe to say that optimism is clearly associated with better psychological health, as seen through lower levels of depressed mood, anxiety, and general distress, when facing difficult life circumstances, including situations involving recovery from illness and disease. A smaller, but still substantial, amount of research has studied associations with physical well-being. And I think most researchers at this point would agree that optimism is connected to positive physical health outcomes, including decreases in the likelihood of re-hospitalization following surgery, the risk of developing heart disease, and mortality.

We also know why optimists do better than pessimists. The answer lies in the differences between the coping strategies they use. Optimists are not simply being Pollyannas; they're problem solvers who try to improve the situation. And if it can't be altered, they're also more likely than pessimists to accept that reality and move on. Physically, they're more likely to engage in behaviors that help protect against disease and promote recovery from illness. They're less likely to smoke, drink, and have poor diets, and more likely to exercise, sleep well, and adhere to rehab programs. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to deny, avoid, and distort the problems they confront, and dwell on their negative feelings. It's easy to see now why pessimists don't do so well compared to optimists.

Previously: The secret to living longer? It’s all in the ‘tude
Photo by Hugo Quintero

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