Three ways the power of positive thinking boosts physical health

Two brothers orphaned at a young age by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 turned personal tragedy into triumph; here’s why you too should always look on the bright side

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 December, 2015, 8:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 December, 2015, 8:02pm

There is growing evidence that optimism and positive thinking – exemplified by Paul and Rob Forkan, orphaned as children but who’ve triumphed over tragedy to help others – has health benefits. Findings suggest that positive thinkers are not only healthier and less stressed, but also have greater overall well-being.

University of Kentucky psychology professor Suzanne Segerstrom is renowned for her extensive research into psychological influences on the immune system. In her book, Breaking Murphy’s Law: How Optimists Get What They Want From Life – and Pessimists Can Too, Segerstrom explains that optimism is not only about feeling positive, but also about being motivated and persistent.

Optimists, she says, tend to deal with problems head-on. They plan a course of action, seek advise from others and stay focused on solutions. They tend to expect a good outcome, and even when they don’t get it, they find ways to learn and grow from the negative experience.

Here are a few benefits of seeing the cup as half-full.

1. An immunity boost

Feeling better about the future may promote better immunity against some infections, according to a study published in 2010 in Psychological Science. In the study, 124 first year law students were examined five times over six months, each time answering questions about how optimistic they felt about law school. Then they were injected with material to effect an immune response and two days later, they came back to have the injection site measured. A larger bump in the skin meant a stronger immune response.

As each student’s expectations about law school waxed and waned, their immune response followed suit. At more optimistic times, they had bigger immune responses; at a more pessimistic time, a more sluggish immune response.

2. Lower stroke risk

In a 2011 study in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association, a nationally representative group of 6,044 adults over the age of 50 in the US rated their optimism levels on a 16-point scale. Each point increase in optimism corresponded to a nine per cent decrease in acute stroke risk over a two-year follow-up period.

“Our work suggests that people who expect the best things in life actively take steps to promote health,” says Eric Kim, study lead author and a clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Michigan. The protective effect of optimism may primarily be due to behavioural choices that people make, such as taking vitamins, eating a healthy diet and exercising, the researchers say.

3. Better heart health

Optimistic women have a 9 per cent lower risk of developing heart disease and a 14 per cent lower risk of dying from any cause compared to pessimistic women, according to a 2009 study in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association. The study also found that women with a high degree of cynical hostility – harbouring hostile thoughts towards others or having a general mistrust of people – were at a 16 per cent higher risk of dying.

The team studied 97,253 women aged 50 to 79 over more than eight years. Optimists were less likely to have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or depressive symptoms, smoke, be sedentary or have a high body mass index.

“As a physician, I’d like to see people try to reduce their negativity in general,” says Dr Hilary Tindle, lead author of the study and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. “The majority of evidence suggests that sustained, high degrees of negativity are hazardous to health.”

An earlier study of elderly Dutch men, published in 2006 in Archives of Internal Medicine, showed a more pronounced association between optimism and deaths from all causes.