What’s your outlook on life? Would you consider yourself to be a pretty happy person? Do you take things in stride? When you look at the proverbial glass of water (or milk, or diet soda!), do you see it as being half full or half empty?
This week, I decided to write about optimism in relation to nutrition and diabetes behavior. I’ll admit, I may be a little out of my league here, and the topic of optimism is probably better suited for my esteemed colleague, David Spero, to address. But last week, I listened to a webinar regarding optimism and nutrition behavior, and I thought there might be some pearls of wisdom that you all might benefit from. I know that it helped me look at things differently.
Your Outlook Affects Your Behavior
The webinar that I “attended” was given by a dietitian at Baylor University. She defined optimism as “A general personality disposition that favors positive outcomes and the anticipation of hopeful conclusions.” That’s a definition that resonates with me, because I think I sometimes veer in the direction of expecting the worst. The dietitian cited work by Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Kentucky, who affirms that optimism isn’t necessarily something that you’re born with. About 25% of optimism is due to genetic influences, and 50% is due to life experiences. In other words, optimism can be learned. This is good news!
You might be thinking, yeah, well, so what? What good does it do me to think “optimistically?” And the answer is, actually, a lot. Here are some reasons to look on the brighter side and expect good things. Optimists tend to have:
• Better physical and mental health
• Less stress
• More confidence about the future
• Improved problem-solving and coping abilities
• A higher quality of life
• Better goal achievement
• Better coping with change
• More joy
• Personal contentment
In addition, optimists enjoy certain, tangible health benefits that their cousins, the pessimists, may not:
• A longer life
• Quicker healing
• Fewer colds
• More physical activity
• Better nutrition
• Improved stress management
• Spiritual growth
• Improved relationships with others
• A lower body-mass index (BMI)
• Less anxiety
So, OK, that’s all well and good, but how does all of this translate into better nutrition and improved food choices — and, I might add, improved diabetes self-care? Some of it is obvious. If you look forward to the future, if you’re goal oriented, if you feel well physically, emotionally, and mentally, it stands to reason that you’ll likely make an effort to treat yourself well and take care of yourself. For example, you may be more inclined to choose healthier foods, read food labels, watch portions, and be physically active. You may be more willing to check your blood glucose regularly, keep food and blood glucose records, take your medicine, and go to your medical appointments.
The Blame Game
That’s not to say that every day is always a great day or that there aren’t times when you feel down, discouraged, or stressed. But the fact that you have a positive outlook means that you pick yourself up and move on. You don’t fear change, and when “bad” things happen, you deal with them and go forward. Pessimists tend to blame themselves for those bad things and will assume that things will stay that way. In fact, a new study out of Ithaca College implies that people with diabetes who believe themselves to be responsible for having diabetes tend to blame themselves for making poor lifestyle choices and are subsequently less likely to engage in diabetes self-care activities, such as glucose monitoring, making healthy food choices, and taking diabetes medicine.
You Can Become an Optimist
You really can learn to have a more positive outlook on life. Undoubtedly, having diabetes is challenging and can be downright hard. You don’t get to take a vacation from it, and over time, it can plain wear you down. But if you had some of those traits that optimists have, perhaps you’d be more likely to cope with the hardships of having a chronic condition. How do you become an optimist? As with many things in life, it takes practice and patience. Here’s what you can try:
• Learn as much as you can about your diabetes (or your high blood pressure, your cholesterol, etc.). The more you know, the less you’ll fear it and the more likely you’ll be able to manage your condition.
• Practice positive self- talk. For example, instead of saying, “I shouldn’t have eaten that piece of pie because my blood glucose is now 300. I’m a failure,” think of what good came out of the situation, such as stopping at just one slice of pie, or learning how a particular food affects your blood glucose.
• Write it down. Journaling is good for so many things. When you write down your fears or concerns, it helps you think about things differently and with more clarity. You’ll be more likely to problem-solve. While you’re at it, write down the positives, too. What went well? What are some good things that happened in your day? What are you grateful for?
• Get help. You don’t have to go it alone. Meeting with in a group or with a therapist, or talking with a trusted friend or clergy member can be reinforcing. Often, others can help you keep perspective and realize that things really aren’t so bad!
• Do something you enjoy. Try not to dwell too much on your diabetes or your health, in general. Don’t let it overtake you 24/7. Take a break by doing something you like to do. At the very least, take time out of your day to relax — meditate, listen to music, read a good book. Treat yourself well.
— An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity. Winston Churchill