“Optimists attract friends. They're positively perceived by colleagues and they assume people will like them, so they're more likely to reach out and less likely to worry about rejection.” – Dr Sarah Edelman.
Is your glass half-full or half-empty? Your answer might go further than you thought towards determining your wellbeing, happiness and long-term health.
In fact, optimism – or a glass-half-full approach – could also help your prospects when it comes to personal relationships and social networks, and perhaps even your profession and finances.
Optimism and wellbeing: the research
In partnership with Deakin University, Australian Unity has been measuring Australians’ wellbeing for 20 years in the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index. To understand Australians’ overall sense of optimism, the Wellbeing Index asked participants whether they believed their best days were behind them, ahead of them or right now – and more than seven out of 10 said their best days are either right now or in the future.
But even if the results show that we’re a nation of optimists, what does it mean for our wellbeing? The Wellbeing Index found that people who believed that their best days were either right now or ahead of them had normal or high overall wellbeing, while those that believed that their best days were behind them had very low wellbeing. The exception? Over-65s who believed their best days were behind them still had normal levels of wellbeing, indicating that this reflects a realistic, rather than pessimistic, outlook.
But the positive relationship between optimism and wellbeing may go even further than this. The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index has identified seven “domains”, or factors, that support our wellbeing, including health, finances (also called “standard of living”), relationships, community connectedness, achieving in life, safety and future security – and research is increasingly showing that optimism has an impact on many of these domains.
A longer life
The profound potential of optimism was perhaps best highlighted in 2019 when a long-term study in the United States revealed that its most optimistic participants lived, on average, 11 to 15 percent longer.
This came several years after other studies suggested that people who were pessimistic or suffered depression aged faster than optimists. This conclusion was drawn after it was found that pessimists had shorter telomeres, which are the end sections of chromosomes that gauge a person's biological age.
Optimists also have a lower risk of cardiovascular problems, as was revealed in a 2019 research paper, while other studies suggest that if they do undergo heart surgery, they tend to make stronger recoveries.
For her 2017 PhD, Dr Sue Ferguson – an honorary associate lecturer at the Department of Psychology at Macquarie University in Sydney – produced one of the studies that demonstrated optimism was a predictor of several types of wellbeing, particularly in older adults.
"There is also starting to be some good evidence of the positive effect optimism has on different illnesses. In particular, the impact optimism has on how you adjust to having that illness," says Sue. "There's evidence with cancer survivors and people with HIV/AIDS and those adjusting to chronic pain, as well as lowered stress in caregivers."
If you're positive about your future, you're more likely to want to get there in good shape, with studies revealing that optimists tend to follow better dietary, dental and sleep routines, and are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.
"If you believe what you do is likely to make a difference and you believe you've got some degree of autonomy, you're hopeful about the future and you can actually make a difference, you're more likely to be motivated to make that difference," says Dr Sarah Edelman, a clinical psychologist and author of the 2013 bestseller Change Your Thinking.
People tend to respond positively to positivity, so it's no surprise that optimists often boast large social networks (which also help them deal with stress).
"Optimists attract friends. They're positively perceived by colleagues and they assume people will like them, so they're more likely to reach out and less likely to worry about rejection," says Sarah. "In intimate relationships, being realistically optimistic is generally a good thing, and optimists can have a positive influence on a partner who might be anxious or negatively disposed because our traits rub off on each other to an extent."
In fact, a 2020 study concluded that clean-living optimists contribute to their partners' health by helping them avoid the risk factors that lead to cognitive illnesses including Alzheimer's disease and dementia. The optimists themselves are also less likely to suffer from such conditions.
Better jobs, more money
It's widely acknowledged that optimists generally enjoy more successful lives, with American psychologist Martin Seligman concluding in his acclaimed 1991 book Learned Optimism that optimism breeds success, rather than the other way around.
"An optimist is more likely to see possibilities, more likely to take certain calculated risks, or more comfortable just calling more people to get feedback – so it can open the door to new ideas and developments," says Sarah.
Optimism is a particularly precious commodity in tough times – such as the COVID-19 crisis – because it can be, among other things, a stress reliever and a motivator.
"Research suggests that optimistic people have better coping strategies, so they are more likely to address the problem and do something about it," says Sue. "It also seems to help you deal with stress, which in turn helps your immunity, which could then help you cope with infections."
However, optimism can fluctuate considerably according to circumstance, and that's where it's crucial to try to lift your mood.
"Mood is an important influence on your level of optimism," says Sarah. "You can influence your mood and, in turn, your sense of optimism, by doing things like listening to music, exercising, engaging socially, or playing with your pet."
The perils of being too optimistic
Harnessed well, optimism can almost be a superpower, but it's crucial to keep your head out of the clouds and your feet firmly grounded.
Unrealistic expectations can lead to even greater disappointment when they aren't met. They can also result in complacent attitudes (such as thinking "bad things happen to other people – I'll be all right"), which are linked to unhealthy or risky behaviour, such as consuming alcohol or drugs, smoking and having unsafe sex.
"So there is an upper limit as to how much optimism is good. It needs to be at a more realistic level," says Sue.
How to become more optimistic
For those keen to adopt a more positive outlook, the first thing to understand is that there is no one-off fix. The path to optimism takes regular, dedicated effort involving various mental exercises.
Sue suggested you try the Greater Good In Action website's highly-rated “Best Possible Self” technique, which asks you to imagine your ideal future life and self every day for two weeks.
Meanwhile, Sarah recommended cognitive behaviour therapy, which identifies negative thought patterns and aims to teach you to see things in a more reasonable, balanced way. It incorporates the following exercises to do when you feel down:
- Ask yourself: "What's the worst thing that could happen? What's the best thing that could happen? And what's the most likely thing that could happen?"
- Think of someone you regard as sensible and ask yourself: “How would they think in this situation?”
- Ask yourself: "If a friend was in this situation, what advice would I give them?"
Whichever method you use to achieve an optimistic mindset, it would appear to be well worth the effort. With research showing links between optimism and our health, relationships and career, a positive attitude could be yet another way to support our happiness and wellbeing.
Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.