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Health & Wellness

The Power, and Limits, of Positive Thinking

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Gloomy Gus and Sunny Sandy both drive into a parking lot for the local high-school basketball playoffs.

The lot is getting full, with an attendant directing overflow traffic to a nearby lot. “I knew coming here would be a headache,” Gloomy Gus gripes. “And it will be total gridlock leaving.”

Sunny Sandy takes a different view. “Isn’t it wonderful,” she exclaims, “that everyone is coming out to support these kids.”

Most of us would much rather be in the passenger seat of Sandy’s car. But that’s not the only difference between the two. Research suggests that people who are optimists have better health outcomes and may even live longer than perpetual pessimists.

One study looked at people who were admitted to the hospital for acute heart problems, such as a heart attack. Six months after admission, patients who were optimists were more physically active and less likely to have been readmitted than those who appeared to be pessimistic patients.

Another study, conducted in Ohio, followed people 50 or older for 23 years. The finding: those who had a positive view of aging lived an average 7.5 years longer than those who had a negative outlook on getting older.

Researchers speculate that the optimists among us may thrive because believing in a happy future gives people the motivation to take steps to safeguard their health, such as taking the medication their doctor prescribes, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly.

If you’re, by nature, a glass-half-empty rather than a glass-half-full type of person, don’t despair. There are simple ways you can cultivate optimism.

Practice gratitude. Take a few minutes at the beginning or the end of every day to note some things for which you’re grateful. To keep the practice from becoming rote, try to observe new things. You might, for example, be grateful for the green branches on the tree that you glimpse through your window as the seasons change, the joke you shared with your sister, the deep stretches you can enjoy now that your back pain has eased. One study found that people who practice gratitude by noticing and appreciating the positives in the world reported better physical health, psychological health and healthy activities. The link was especially strong for older adults.

Increase your ratio of positive to negative emotions. Seek out simple, happy experiences, suggests Christine Carter, Ph.D., in her book The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work. And, “yes,” she says, “watching silly cat videos counts!”

Ditch distorted thinking. This kind of faulty thinking can take several forms, says psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. In overgeneralizing, your thoughts run along the lines of “everyone lets me down” or “things never work for me.” In negative filtering, you focus only on the minuses, never acknowledging the positives of a situation, interpreting events in the most extreme form, like “I ruined everything.”

Once you become aware that your thought patterns are neither accurate nor helpful, you can start replacing them with more constructive thoughts. To help you do that, Lombardo suggests asking yourself what she calls “reframing questions,” such as, “How might someone I admire view this situation?” or “If I was feeling more relaxed, how might I view this?”

Strive for a balance of optimism and realism. The cost of pessimism may be high, notes Alice Boyes, Ph.D., in her book The Healthy Mind Toolkit: Simple Strategies to Get Out of Your Own Way and Enjoy Your Life. You close yourself off from potential enjoyment because you think every outing will be a disappointment. You don’t ask for help when you need it, because you assume other people won’t want to help you or they won’t be useful. On the other hand, reckless optimism can be risky, too. You may be too trusting of others, fail to take realistic steps to protect your physical or financial health because you assume everything will work out for the best. Boyes suggests a style of thinking known as “defensive pessimism.” This means hoping for the best, but planning for problems, for example, keeping an umbrella in the car and some extra funds in the bank for those rainy days.

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