Optimism, Pessimism, Mental Health & Chronic Illness

“Positivity is not about how to maintain a positive attitude, but how to produce positive emotions.” – Frederickson, 2009.

“Research indicates that pessimism correlates with depression, lowered achievement, and health problems.” – Martin Seligman, 1998.

If you don’t know who Seligman is, that’s totally okay and to be honest totally normal if you haven’t studied psychology. He’s the founder of positive psychology (which does not say that positivity is the cure to mental health, just to be clear) and has done a lot of research in this area. For me, the interesting part of the statement isn’t the mental health aspects, which are a bit less surprising, but the physical health part, because what does that mean for people with a chronic illness?

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Okay, so here’s a quick overview of some research of optimism vs. pessimism and chronic pain or illness. According to Forgeard and Seligman (2012) disease may progress slower for optimists than for pessimists. Optimists typically have better cardiovascular (heart) functioning and less heart disease, and they may have better immune functioning (though the research is more mixed on that the later). They also found that cancer patients had better survival rates one year after diagnosis if they were optimists, and that in general optimists are about half as likely to die from whatever disease they have than pessimists are. They do caution that some studies don’t show this effect and/or the results are negative, but it’s theorized that the stage of disease may play into this. They also theorize that unrealistic vs. realistic optimism plays a role. (I’ve often said that you can be – and that I am – a realistic optimist).

Life of a realistic optimist.

In terms of chronic pain, Ramirez-Maestre et al. (2012) found that optimism leads to better overall well-being and this might have to do with coping strategies that optimists and pessimists use. Basically, pessimists are more likely to use passive coping strategies such as avoidance and optimists are more likely to use active coping strategies such as acceptance. Active coping leads to lower pain severity, less depression, and better daily functioning.

I don’t know about you, but less pain always sounds good to me!

I can hear some of you saying, “But I’m naturally pessimistic! I can’t help it!” Positive psychology actually shows that we can have learned helplessness and learned optimism – yes, I said it, we can learn optimism. It’s not necessarily a fixed part of personality and there is research to support that. Basically, if we learn to combat negative self-talk, we can become more positive. Pessimism is caused by selecting our attention to certain things as well as a lack of internal confidence in our abilities to control or change parts of our lives (learned helplessness) so when we fail at something, we blame it on something within us we can’t change. I hope I didn’t lose anyone during this.

Seligman explains this way better than I do.

If you want to be more optimistic here’s something things you can do, according to Seligman:

  • utilize gratitude (maybe use a gratitude journal or write a gratitude letter)
  • help others in need (by volunteering for example)
  • challenge your negative thoughts and believes (what’s the evidence for and against them)
  • tackle your negative self-talk (trying changing it)

In the Science of Well-Being course taught by Yale professor Laurie Santos, she explains that only 50% of our happiness comes from genes. So, if you’re still believing that you can’t change from being a pessimistic to an optimistic because it’s how you are born, then remember that. 10% of our happiness comes from our circumstances, and the last 40% comes from our actions and thoughts. Which means, you can still improve your levels of happiness (and thereby some aspects of your health) even if you’re not naturally inclined to optimism.

If you haven’t checked out The Science of Well-Being course yet (it’s free), then I highly recommend it!

I hope this was helpful for some of you! Let me know how it goes with those four techniques to learning optimism! Keep on making the most of it!

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