Saturday, June 16, 2012

Optimists Live Longer, Pessimists Cope Easier

I've talked a lot this week about happiness, which is fitting for a "laughter" themed week. Today I'm going to explore the benefits of being optimistic. But, if you find that your clouds don't tend to have a silver lining, I'll have some positive statistics for the pessimists among us as well.

Contrary to popular opinion, a genuine smile uses 11 muscles and a frown uses 10.

First of all, what is optimism? Does it mean you're happy all the time, about everything? No, that's called "neurotic." Optimists and pessimists both get happy and sad; the difference is that when an optimist experiences something negative, they react by relating it to something happy.

For instance, a college optimist who scores low on an exam will likely think, "Well, I can still get a good grade in the course; I just need to try harder on the next one." Typically, an optimist is quick to move away from negative thoughts - the focus isn't on the bad mark, but on the next exam.

So long as an optimist can maintain ideas of positivity, they tend to try harder than pessimists to reach goals. Optimists also tend to live longer than pessimists, because focusing on positive thoughts lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart disease. In fact, in a study by the American Psychosomatic Society that followed over 2000 cancer patients, those with a sense of humor had a 70 percent lower mortality rate. In English? Having a sense of humor made them 70 percent less likely to die to cancer.

Forget the apples. Go for a laugh a day, instead!

You've been replaced!

Unlike that college optimist who looks forward to the next exam, a college pessimist would get his grade and then focus on all the mistakes he made on the test. Instead of immediately looking past the negativity, the pessimist dwells on it, in order to make sure it won't happen again.

So that means that pessimists are always depressed, right? Wrong. In fact, pessimists cope easier with immediate disappointment. They tend to be perfectionists and they historically make for better leaders than optimists. Pessimists respond better to negative feedback (as evidenced by the hypothetical college student,) and their outlook could help reduce anxiety about the future - "if I can plan against things that might go wrong, then things won't go wrong."

The important difference to note is that optimists benefit from their focus on happiness. Pessimists focus more on preventing bad than creating good. This means that the low blood pressure benefits of optimism are not shared with pessimists.

"Great! One more thing to worry about..."
Cognitive Psychology

Both optimism and pessimism are important for a healthy life. As often as we try to lump people into one of the two categories, the truth is that both of these elements are at play in each and every one of us. It's just as important to be critical of ourselves and our failures in order to become better people as it is for us to strive for personal happiness in our future.

You need a balance of positivity and negativity... Seems familiar...
Cognitive Psychology has become one of the more popular fields of psychology since the 1970s. It focuses on how the brain interprets the world and how that, in turn, affects our health. A cognitive psychologist would focus on your thoughts in order to treat you. For instance, if you make a mistake at work, instead of thinking, "I can't believe how dumb I am," a cognitive psychologist would have you think, "I can't believe how dumb that was."

The wording of our thoughts is incredibly important. The first thought blames the person, taking the mistake out of context and turning into a character flaw. In contrast, the second thought keeps the failure where it belongs - the failure "was" dumb, meaning that the mistake itself is at fault and now that mistake is in the past. Correcting this one train of thought has no measurable effect on a person, but correcting hundreds of thoughts a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year? That leads to a person not calling himself/herself a loser 36,400 times.

You can be your own worst enemy. So smile and don't be so hard on yourself. You'll live longer.

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