Optimism is viewed by many as a childish way of looking at the world that does little to solve "real world" problems. Some prefer the draws of pragmatism and the supposed "truth" behind pessimism. However, there's no denying that optimistic people seem to be happier than their pessimistic peers. It turns out there may also be tangible health benefits to having a positive outlook on life.
Research is starting to take a closer look at hope and optimism and their link to better mental and physical health. Looking at the glass half full may be the healthiest perspective to have. Unfortunately, the study of optimism hasn't been a serious focus of many scientific research studies. One surprising place where we can gain a greater insight into the benefits of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses is the film industry.
Some of the most famous films have been, at their core, films about optimism. From It's a Wonderful Life to Slumdog Millionaire, movies have shown us that positive thinking can lead us through the harshest adversity. We've seen Maria von Trapp walk safely into Switzerland. We've basked in Andy Dufresne's long-deserved escape from Shawshank.
Optimistic films strike a chord with us. There's something so satisfying about seeing the results of someone's optimism pay off. When we find it difficult to summon hope and confidence in our own lives, sometimes movies can give us that final nudge in the right direction. Many films highlighting the power of optimism have come out this year alone.
There have been a few artistic endeavors centered around the peculiar figure of Fred Rogers in recent years. Multiple books have come out in the last decade and several movies, too. 2018's Won't You Be My Neighbor debuted on what would have been Mr. Roger's 90th birthday. The loving documentary chronicled Fred Rogers' career and relationships. Judging by the audience and critical reactions, Won't You Be My Neighbor tugged on the collective heartstrings of everyone who grew up tuning in to visit Mr. Rogers' neighborhood1.
Another Mr. Rogers-centric film came out just this year. (Back to back Fred Rogers films feels like a serendipitous box office phenomenon.) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shows us two things. One: that the film industry can't resist using the uplifting lyrics from the theme to Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood as movie titles. And two: that the positivity of one person can have a ripple effect that shapes the world around them.
Instead of focusing exclusively on the centerpiece character of Mr. Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood tells the story of a bitter and jaded reporter tasked with writing a fluff piece about the children's television star. It is the emotional journey of this reporter that props up the film. He begins to see the world differently through repeated interactions with the charmingly patient and optimistic Fred Rogers.
Messages of hope and optimism can be powerful things, especially when the source material is authentic. The fact that Fred Rogers was a real person, that his positive outlook and confidence were also sincere, means the core of this film hits home. Here there is a picture of this genuine man whose positivity bettered not only his own life but also the lives of others.
A crucial part of optimism is hope. Without hope for the future, these feelings of positivity and confidence are impossible. The two go hand-in-hand. David Copperfield, perhaps one of the most well-known showcases of perseverance and hope, saw another adaptation this year. The Personal History of David Copperfield follows the titular character's life from childhood to adulthood.
Mr. Copperfield lives through the worst circumstances, some of which go far beyond the pale of what most people experience in their lives, but his perseverance sees him through. David never succumbs to a spiral of pessimism. His tenacity helps him emerge at the end of the story, both wiser and happier.
Optimism manages to be a strong theme in all adaptations of Charles Dickens' famous novel. David Copperfield wouldn't feel right without it. And it is not just the titular character who adheres to this theme. Through secondary characters like Wilkins Micawber, we see an undying optimism that bursts through adversity, where pessimism would inevitably fail.
So what about real life? Anecdotes and movies are delightful, but if we want to get a clear idea of the benefits of optimism, we need to take a closer look at some scientific research. Confidence and hope are inherently challenging to study because it requires self-reporting, and different people can have different perceptions of what it means to have a positive outlook.
Fortunately, there is some reliable data out there. Scientific surveys and studies that focus on optimism can give us an idea of how our state of mind might factor into our mental and physical health. Here are five recent scientific research studies on optimism and their findings.
A 2019 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found a correlation between optimism and a lifespan increase of 11 to 15 percent2. The study describes optimism as a "psychosocial resource" that can help people achieve exceptional longevity, defined by this scientific research as living to the age of 85 or beyond.
Why might optimism contribute to longevity? It's hard to know for sure, but it may have to do with stress. We know that chronic stress can have a negative impact on physical and mental health. An optimistic mindset may provide a kind of natural defense against the effects of chronic stress and cortisol. Diseases that are associated with high stress, like hypertension, may be lower in individuals who practice optimism.
While the correlation between optimism and longevity is there, more research is needed to determine what, if anything, is the causal link. This same study has been popping up all over the news lately, and it's easy to see why. The results are eye-catching. After all, most people want to live longer, healthier lives, and we're always looking for the secret "key" to making it happen.
Yet optimism may be just one piece of the puzzle. No single way of thinking will boost your health, just like no one food will fix your diet. What it takes are moderation, consistency, and a balanced lifestyle. Optimism is part of that balance.
Looking more closely at the physical effects of hope and confidence, study results published in Harvard Health point to a close correlation between optimism and heart health3.
This research also showed a link between pessimism and hypertension. High levels of stress and low optimism were both seen adjacent to the development of heart disease.
This publication makes an important note about optimism: that it exists in different forms. The research split optimism into two groups, dispositional and explanatory.
Dispositional optimism is a chronic sort, wherein people are generally positive about the world and their lives. Explanatory optimism refers to how one might put a positive spin on life events. The two types are often comorbid with one another. Explanatory optimism is significantly easier to learn.
Research into optimism links positive thinking to restorative health processes4. The most important of these is sleep. Sleep is an incredibly therapeutic process. High quality sleep is shown to improve both overall health and quality of life.
Optimistic people tend to sleep better than pessimists do. It may be that those of us with an optimistic viewpoint can more easily let go of stressors that may otherwise keep us up at night. Having an occupied mind can disrupt and even prevent sleep. We've all had nights where we've sat up for hours, mind racing with concerns, lists, and other unwelcome thoughts.
Some people choose to let go of their thoughts through meditation or other calming exercises. Even meditation requires a certain level of optimism. You have to be confident that situations are not permanent, and most importantly, you have to be able to let go.
In 2010, Bentham Science published a comprehensive overview of optimism that detailed research into the role optimism plays in both mental and physical health5. The study broke optimism down into two components: contentment with life and hope for the future.
A crucial part of this research is the concept of self-protection. Optimistic people have access to more coping mechanisms and can direct themselves more efficiently. A confident person with hope for the future, for example, has a higher quality of life. This position often allows them to remove themselves from unattainable goals and focus instead on more feasible ideas. This practicality, in turn, contributes to greater feelings of success and self-worth, which fosters more optimism.
It seems like the concept of a negative spiral exists in the affirmative, as well. Just as negative emotions feed off one another, so too do positive ones. This positive spiral explains phenomena like the events of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The optimism and positivity of Mr. Rogers were so powerful that they leaped free to bolster someone else.
Tips and tricks for seeing the glass half full have been around for ages. We've always been aware that optimistic people seem happy, and many people have tried to mimic that happiness. It turns out that optimism, at least explanatory optimism, can be learned.
NBC recently reported on several studies that compared optimism to social factors like economic status6. The results suggest that optimism is roughly 25 percent inherited, and 75 percent learned. The environment children grow up in dramatically influences their levels of confidence and hope later in life.
So what can we learn from all this data? What do David Copperfield, Fred Rogers, and multiple psychological researchers tell us about making a place for optimism in our lives?
No one can maintain optimism 100 percent of the time, and it would be impossible to expect as much. Don't focus on past mistakes or moments of pessimism, and remember that being optimistic won't make you immune to negativity.
Optimistic people still experience bad luck, sadness, and disappointment. The difference is in how you handle it. Don't let pessimism make a bad situation worse. Explanatory optimism can help you work through the bad, turning it into an opportunity for growth.
The critical thing to remember is that optimism is a mechanism to help you cope with life, not avoid it. Mr. Rogers spent his life teaching children that it is okay to be sad, to feel lonely, or to be scared. Even David Copperfield, unlucky as he was, never lost his commitment to the future.
There's no guarantee that an optimistic mindset will add a decade onto your life, or that it will cure heart disease. What we do know is that optimism can raise your quality of experience in the present, and making the most of right now is an essential part of wellness.
After all, people who see a glass half full have half a drink to enjoy. Those who see a glass half empty have only disappointment over what they don't have.
(1) Rotten Tomatoes (2019) Won't You Be My Neighbor
(2) Lee LL, James P, Zevon E, Kim E, Trudel-Fitzgerald C, Spiro A III, Grodstein F, and Kubzansky L (2019 Sept) Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity
(3) Harvard Medical School (2008 May) Optimism and your health
(4) Hernandez R, Vu T, Kershaw K, Boehm J, Kubzansky L, Carnethon M, Trudel-Fitzgerald C, Knutson K, Colangelo L, Liu K (2019 Jan) The Association of Optimism with Sleep Duration and Quality
(5) Conversano C,1, Rotondo A, Lensi E, Vista O, Arpone F, Reda M (2010 May) Optimism and Its Impact on Mental and Physical Well-Being
(6) Steinhilber B (2017 Aug) How to Train Your Brain to Be More Optimistic