Fortunately for me, I grew up in an optimistic family. My aunts and uncles were optimistic, as was my wonderful grandmother. All of my cousins are optimistic, and my only brother is the epitome of optimism.
So I had no choice but to become an optimist.
An optimist is someone who tends to feel hopeful and positive about the future. Someone who expects that things will turn out well—not perfectly, but well.
Seven years ago, I had a pretty major stroke without warning. I was wheelchair-bound for four months and also had some speech issues.
An old-time friend called when I was in rehab and the first word she said was “Catastrophe!”
“No! No!” I replied. “It’s OK. Everything is good. I’m having fun.” And I gave the phone to my daughter.
My friend never got over that strange conversation.
Things were very bad at the time but not catastrophic, and I was working hard to recover. My only hope was to be optimistic!
Much later, I read an article about the role of optimism in stroke recovery. People who were optimistic before their strokes recover much faster, said the article.
Of course, some stroke survivors have much more severe damage than I had.
Two years after my stroke, I went to a Gingerich family reunion in upstate New York and everybody wanted to hear about my experience. So I told the 150 cousins assembled about my journey, and said that being an optimistic Gingerich was partially responsible for my good recovery.
Researchers aren’t sure whether optimism is “part of one’s nature” or whether it can be learned.
But I, for one, think it’s up to each of us to do what we can to look on the bright side of life, especially as we age and have health problems.
One reason I believe that is because optimists live longer than pessimists—quite a bit longer.
A nine-year study led by Erik Giltay of The Netherlands found this to be true, as did a 30-year Mayo Clinic study led by Toshihiko Maruta.
The participants of the Dutch study were older men and women aged 65-85 years. The optimistic participants had a 55 percent lower risk of death from all causes and a 23 percent lower risk of death from heart failure.
The Dutch researchers weren’t sure whether optimism would have the same effect on younger people.
For that answer, we have to look at the results of the Mayo study. The Mayo researchers found that pessimistic patients of varied ages had a 19 percent increase in the risk of death when comparing their expected lifespan with their actual life.
Said Maruta, “These results confirmed our common-sense belief. They tell us that mind and body are linked and that attitude has an impact on the final outcome, death.”
But the question remains—is optimism genetic or can it be learned?
Psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania says, “It is possible that individuals . . . [might] change their thinking about bad events and so lower their risk for physical illness and even death.”
The Mayo researchers concurred. So there is hope even for the dyed-in-the-wool pessimist.
Why not decide to become an optimist in 2008—you may live longer and certainly will have a happier life.
Marie Snider is an award-winning health care writer and syndicated columnist. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.visit-snider.com
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