Optimism and Health
Diseases that attack the immune system, such as cancer and HIV / AIDS, are objective indicators of disease evolution in optimistic individuals. For example, people with high level of optimism during the first phase of breast cancer reported higher levels of well-being. Moreover, researchers found that pessimistic people had a higher risk of premature death in younger patients, even after controlling cancer location and severity of symptoms (Schulz and Mohamed, 2004).
The evidence suggests that optimism is associated with a longer life. Patients who engage in realistic acceptance of imminent death had a shorter survival time in a sample of 78 men diagnosed with AIDS (Reed et al., 1994; reviewed in Taylor et al., 2000). In the same study, it was found that those who showed higher scores on “realistic acceptance” died an average of nine months earlier, controlling other potential predictors of death, AIDS-related symptoms, the number of CD4 T-helper cells, medication, stress and general health. These researchers concluded that unrealistic optimism (or positive illusions), compared to realistic acceptance were a predictor of survival. These findings overlap Taylor’s view according to whom positive illusions help the individual that is facing severe disease discover a meaning despite this extreme adversity (Taylor, 2009).
One way in which optimism seems to mediate these effects is to facilitate positive emotions because optimism is associated with positive effect. One explanation may lie in the interaction between factors such as good mood and functioning of the immune system that mediate the effect. In addition, optimistic patients diagnosed with HIV practiced better health habits than pessimistic patients (better compliance in taking drugs, drinking less alcohol, cigarettes, better diet, more intense physical activity,fewer casual sexual partners and so on). Optimists tend to believe in their ability to control their own health, and this determines them to adopt healthy behaviors such as eating a small amount of fat, vitamins administration, enrollment in cardiac rehabilitation programs, etc. (Scheier and Carver, 2009).
Above all, researchers in the field of optimism argue that the optimists are not just persons who hide their heads in the sand like ostriches, and do nothing but ignore the threats to their well-being. For example, they are more aware of the warning signs of possible illness and usually discover serious health problems earlier. Pessimists, on the other hand, are more likely to anticipate disaster and as a result, are more likely to give up the fight with the disease.
Another example is an experiment in which, before entering the operating room, patients were asked to complete a questionnaire about how optimistic they feel about the heart surgery they will have. The results showed that before surgery optimists experienced a lower degree of hostility and depression, and after surgery showed a higher level of relief, happiness, satisfaction with health services and perception of emotional support. Most interestingly, optimism was a significant predictor for recovery. These effects persisted 6 months after surgery, and 5 years later optimists showed a higher likelihood to be active, and a more reduced risk to be hospitalized again. The objective assessment of physical health showed that the optimistic patients were less likely to develop problematic enzymes or other cardiac problems unlike the pessimists. It was also demonstrated that pessimists were more likely to suffer a heart attack during surgery, taking into account the relevant disease control parameters.
Reed, GM, Kennedy, ME, Taylor, SE, Wang, HYJ and Visscher, B.R. (1994) Realistic
acceptance: Decreased as a predictor of survival time in gay men with Aids. Health
Psychology, 13: 299-307.
Scheier, M. and Carver, C. (2009) Optimism.In S. Lopez (ed.) Encyclopedia of Positive
Psychology (pp. 656-63).Chichester: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Schulz, U. and Mohamed, NE (2004) Turning the tide: Benefit finding after cancer surgery.Social Science and Medicine, 59 (3): 653-62.
Taylor, S. (2009) Positive illusions. In S. Lopez (ed.) Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology (pp.727-30) Chichester: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.