Research has shown that optimistic people live about seven years longer, on average, than pessimistic people. Does this mean anything? Is it possible to become optimistic, even with diabetes? Would it help?
Personally, I’m kind of a pessimist. When my mother told me about the “optimists live longer” studies, my immediate response was, “Great! Another way I’m totally screwed.”
But then I started to think, maybe it is possible to be more positive. Even if it doesn’t help me live longer, it might make me more enjoyable to be around.
So OK, I’ll try. But how? I started researching, and here’s what I’ve found:
For some reason, the Dutch seem to do a lot of studies about optimism. In one, 1,000 adults ages 65 to 85 were asked two questions: “Do you often feel like life is full of promise?” and “Do you still have many goals to strive for?”
During the nine-year follow-up period, researchers found that those participants who had answered “yes” were 55% less likely to die from any cause, and 23% less likely to die from a heart-related illness, compared to the pessimistic group.
But is optimism really making them healthier? Maybe optimists are in better shape, and that’s why they’re optimistic. Another Dutch study found that children of long-lived parents tended to be more optimistic, even in childhood. So maybe the kids who were genetically programmed for long life felt better about themselves.
However, Amy Campbell reported here that optimism is known to have several specific benefits. “Optimists tend to have less stress, improved problem-solving and coping abilities, better goal achievement, and better coping with change.”
You can see how those traits would be helpful in managing diabetes. According to Campbell, in studies, optimists have immune system advantages over pessimists: quicker healing and fewer colds. They also have better health behaviors: more physical activity, better nutrition. They tend to be happier, with better stress management, better relationships with others, and less anxiety. So of course they are likely to be healthier, if this is true.
What is optimism and how is it measured?
Do we know what is meant by “optimism”? Most dictionary definitions run something like: “Hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something” or “a tendency to expect the best possible outcome or dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation.”
I like that last one about “dwelling on the most hopeful aspects of a situation.” I’ll come back to that.
Usually, researchers ask some questions designed to reveal your general level of belief that good things will happen, on a scale like this one.
But I wonder, aren’t most people optimistic about some things and pessimistic about others? Is there such a thing as general optimism or pessimism? Perhaps people can feel confident about their finances, but anxious about their health, or positive about their relationships, but negative about global warming. Or they may feel optimistic about their blood glucose but pessimistic about their weight. Perhaps measuring optimism isn’t that easy.
Becoming an optimist
A theory called “positive psychology” claims optimism can be learned. In his book, Learned Optimism, psychologist Martin Seligman says that optimistic people think bad events are temporary, while good things are permanent. Pessimistic people believe the opposite — bad things are permanent while good things will soon be gone.
Similarly, optimists think failure in one area doesn’t mean failure in others. Pessimists think it does. When it comes to success, the roles are reversed: optimists generalize while pessimists think “Yeah, I won this time. But everything else is still a mess.” Pessimists blame themselves for bad things but credit the environment for successes. Optimists credit themselves and blame the environment.
So learning optimism involves changing pessimistic thoughts to more optimistic ones. In other words, basic cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): change your thoughts, and your attitudes will follow.
Could be, but CBT is nothing new, so I’m not sure this is a breakthrough or just an angle to sell books.
What does this have to do with diabetes? Perhaps people who keep a positive attitude — “I can control this,” “I am getting better,” “I am learning how to manage (or “reverse”) my diabetes” — will do better than those who believe it’s too much for them.
Look at Seligman’s definitions. If you get a high A1C test, does that mean you’re getting worse (pessimism), or is it just a temporary setback, a bad month (optimism)? If you have an unexpected high fasting glucose in the morning, is it your fault? Or did something happen yesterday that threw you off, and it won’t happen again, at least not often (optimism)?
Or say you’re starting to feel more pain in your feet. Does that mean your body is falling apart? Of course it’s not a good sign, but can you do something about it (optimism) or is it hopeless?
Optimism and pessimism are not right or wrong. Both outlooks are true. They just focus on different aspects of reality. There is tons of grim stuff to bring us all down. It’s in the media all the time. There are personal downers too, especially when we have a chronic illness.
But would it hurt to look at the positive stuff more often? One researcher found “Pessimists are, in fact, more realistic about the trials they face in the world. But the data shows it doesn’t do them any good.”
I am trying to be more optimistic. I’m starting to “dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation.” That would mean focusing on what I can do to improve a health or life situation, not on the terrible things that could happen if I don’t.
How about you? Can you face life with optimism? Can you be optimistic about diabetes? I wonder if it makes a difference for you.