The Science of Optimism

Everybody wants to be happy. But it comes more easily for some people than
for others, which leads a lot of pessimistic folks to resign themselves to a darkly
colored existence. While scientists don’t deny that some people are more predisposed
to happiness, they encourage pessimists to take heart—at least some aspects
of leading an optimistic life can be learned.

By Eric Schneider

September 2008

Think every cloud indeed has a silver lining? You may have more reason to think positively— research showing that optimism may benefit human health continues to mount. And one of the latest studies on the subject provides even more reason for optimism: The world, despite seemingly endless sources of anxiety, is getting happier.

Driving the rise in happiness are the spread of economic prosperity and democracy, coupled with advances by women and minority groups, according to the World Values Survey based at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (Perspectives on Psychological Science 7/08).

The study shatters the conventional wisdom that basic happiness levels remain relatively unchanged; a study-based Happiness Index rose in 40 countries between 1981 and 2007, and fell in 12. While previous research has found that happiness is partly inherited and that money doesn’t buy much of it, the study found that people of rich countries skew happier than those of poor nations.

The study also gave great weight to the role of freedom that people have to determine the path of their own lives.

If those dynamics shed light on how people should pursue happier heights, consider these other factors that might help: friendship and social contact. More than a few researchers say that the human touch is a recurring theme as a source of optimism and happiness.

Happy Brain, Happy Body

Though not as exact as other science-based pursuits, the study of happiness and positive thinking has its share of concrete evidence. “We do know that greater activity in the left side of the frontal and parietal cortex, relative to the right, is associated with greater happiness, positive emotion and approach-oriented behavior,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky PhD, psychology professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and the author of The How of Happiness (Penguin Press). Last fall, New York University researchers discovered that optimism is linked to two areas of the brain, the amygdala and rostral anterior cingulate cortex (Nature 10/24/07).

Inversely, irregularities in these brain regions are linked with depression, which is tied to pessimism. One line of reasoning: If pessimism is tied to depression, which often manifests as mental and physical illnesses, then optimism should serve as an anti-depressant for both mind and body. Scientists keep looking for optimism’s physiological roots, but positive thinking’s benefits are increasingly well documented. One study found that out of nearly 1,000 elderly men and women, the highly optimistic ones had roughly a 25% lower risk of cardiovascular death than the pessimists (Archives of General Psychiatry 11/04).

Lyubomirsky offers up more heartening evidence. She and her colleagues analyzed 225 happiness studies with more than 275,000 participants combined. “We concluded that happiness doesn’t just make people feel good—we found that happy and optimistic people enjoy countless advantages and benefits,” she says. Positive-thinking people are physically healthier, more productive at work, more likable in general and live longer. They are also “more creative, earn more money, are better negotiators and have more fulfilling relationships.”

Happy, optimistic people may see some unexpected benefits as well: Lyubomirsky says they are less likely to get into car accidents and report less physical pain. Citing studies ranging from 1989 to 2008, she adds that “people who are happy at one point in time…have a lower incidence of stroke six years later, especially men.” What’s more, optimists with coronary heart disease are more likely to survive up to 11 years later.

Ruut Veenhoven, a positive psychology specialist at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, analyzed nearly 30 studies on happiness and longevity and found that “happiness does not heal, but appears to protect against getting ill.” Veenhoven, who oversees the Journal of Happiness Studies and the World Database of Happiness (http://worlddatabaseofhappiness.eur.nl/), likens the effect to the good health of non-smokers versus smokers, who are prone to more ailments.

A positive attitude, Veenhoven explains, can also result in reduced stress, which can negatively affect the body in many ways. Research has shown that stress may make people more susceptible to a wide array of disorders and diseases, from skin irritations to various kinds of cancer.

The Human Touch

An optimistic attitude may help the body heal itself. Lyubomirsky says it has been documented that positive-thinking people “recover faster from congenital heart defect surgery.” Similarly, the Institute of Environmental Medicine in Stockholm, Sweden found this year that optimistic patients suffering from whiplash injuries recovered better than their glum counterparts. Patients with the lowest expectations for recovery were four times more likely to have higher disability levels and two times more likely to have moderate disability six months later.

Optimists tend to have strong social ties, according to Veenhoven, Lyubomirsky and other researchers. Veenhoven asserts that happy people excel at “creating social support,” while Lyubomirsky calls them “other-centered,” that is, less self-centered and “more charitable and helpful to others.”

Eric Weiner, a Washington, DC-based National Public Radio correspondent, trotted the globe to find the happiest places as research for his book The Geography of Bliss (Twelve). “The happiest places are the places where social ties are the strongest,” Weiner concluded. Case in point is Iceland, which is cold and/or dark for much of the year, yet is considered one of the happiest, most optimistic places on the planet, thanks, in part, to its close-knit sense of community.

This notion also applies to trust. Weiner says, “In America, we’re becoming a less trusting culture and that does not bode well for our happiness.” Since optimistic people are more inclined to trust others and avoid putting up walls around themselves, they tend to succeed in creating an overall happier living environment.

Of course, the tricky part about studying and quantifying positive thinking is that it’s a classic which-came-first situation. “It’s the cause and effect that’s hard to piece apart,” Weiner says. “Is it that happy people tend to be healthier or that healthy people tend to be happier?” Lyubomirsky acknowledges this issue, and has tried to untangle the knot in her own studies. “The causal direction undoubtedly goes in both directions—happiness leads to success, and success makes people happy,” she says. “It’s likely similar for optimism, but not as precise.  That is, being creative or charitable doesn’t necessarily lead you to be optimistic, but it might.”

In her book The How of Happiness, Lyubomirsky details 12 key “happiness activities”—and “cultivating optimism” ranks high among them. People can do that, she says, by “keeping track of what you think is the best possible future for yourself or making a point of looking on the bright side.” Without optimism, happiness becomes something that we stumble across rather than create, making it harder to realize its benefits.

In The How of Happiness, Lyubomirsky cites “the pie chart theory of happiness,” which asserts that “50% of individual differences in happiness are governed by genes, 10% by life circumstances and the remaining 40% by what we do and how we think—that is, our intentional activities and strategies. The secret, of course, lies in that 40%.” If we learn to embrace optimism and turn away from pessimism, we may not just be happier, we may actually become healthier.

 

Testing Your Happiness and Optimism

Here’s reason for optimism: No matter how your responses to the following happiness self-test score (determining what researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky calls your “happiness set point”), that set point accounts for just 50% of happiness while only 10% is linked to life circumstances or situations. That means 40% of our capacity for happiness is within our power to change.
For each of the following statements and/or questions, circle the number from the scale that most accurately describes you.

In general, I consider myself:

1            2            3            4            5            6            7
Not a                                                                           A very happy
very happy                                                                   person
person

 

Compared with most of my peers, I consider myself:

1            2            3            4            5            6            7
Less                                                                             More
happy                                                                           happy

 

Some people are generally very happy. They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything. To what extent does this characterization describe you?

1            2            3            4            5            6            7
Not                                                                              A great
at all                                                                             deal

 

Some people are generally not very happy. Although they are not depressed, they never seem as happy as they might be. To what extent does this characterization describe you?

1            2            3            4            5            6            7
A great                                                                         Not
deal                                                                              at all

 

To determine your happiness score, calculate the average of the four responses. The higher the number, the happier you are.

Source: The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin Press), by Sonja Lyubomirsky

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