What Optimism Is, and Why It’s Healthy

Optimism is a general expectation that things will turn out well—if not immediately, then in the long run. Yet it’s a myth that optimists are oblivious to harsh realities. “Optimists are able to see difficult situations, but they tend to view them as challenges to overcome or problems to be solved,” says Lombardo.

That helps explain the link between optimism and health. “Optimism empowers people to say, ‘Even if things aren’t going the way I want right now, I know I can make them better in the future,” Lombardo says. This can-do attitude helps defuse stress and depression. It also comes in handy if you’re trying to eat better, exercise more, drink less or quit smoking.

An example of the healing power of optimism comes from a study of more than 33,000 women over 50. When the study began, being more optimistic was associated with having a better diet. Over the next year, optimism was also linked to greater improvement in their eating habits—and this was true whether or not the women took part in a formal program designed to help them make this change.

One caveat: “There can be a fine line between optimism and denial,” cautions psychologist Alice Domar, PhD, executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Waltham, Mass. To stay on the right side of this line, keep your optimism grounded in reality. Thinking that quitting smoking is difficult but doable is both optimistic and realistic. In contrast, thinking that you don’t need to worry about quitting because you won’t be hurt by cigarettes is just deluding yourself.

Boosting Your Optimism (Even if You’re a Cynic)

If you’re thinking “this would never work for me,” you may be a natural pessimist. A tendency toward pessimism seems to be part of some people’s genetic makeup. “It’s also very much shaped by your environment and your life experience,” says Domar. Yet even dyed-in-the-wool pessimists can learn to be more realistically positive with practice.

Whether you’re the type of person who tends to see the sun—or the clouds—on a partly cloudy day, these tips can help bolster your optimism:

  • Challenge pessimistic thoughts. When you’re thinking this way, it seems as if negative events will last a long time and ruin everything you do, and you’re helpless to change things. If you’re having such thoughts, ask yourself whether they are actually true. “You can also identify the most rational people in your life, and bounce your views off them,” suggests Domar.
  • Create mental distance. If you’re not sure how to cope with a tough situation in a positive way, take yourself out of the picture. “Pretend you are watching a movie about an optimistic character in the same situation,” says Lombardo. “Then imagine what the character would do.”
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Every evening, jot down at least three things for which you were grateful that day, suggests Lombardo. They don’t all have to be big things; you might note something as simple as a stranger holding the door for you. The idea is to remind yourself of what’s going right in your life.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. It’s easier to feel positive when you’re well rested. One study of more than 1,800 adults found that optimism was associated with getting seven to eight hours of shut eye.