This is the time of year most of us tend to naturally reflect on the past and think toward the future — what we’ve done, where we’re headed, and what we want to do better or differently. But this year is special.
The start of a new decade encourages you to consider not just one year ahead, but also the next 10. Even though nothing actually changes at the stroke of midnight (except the calendar), it feels uniquely significant and necessitates forward-thinking as well as reflection.
Whether you’re the resolution-making type or not, pay careful attention to how you’re thinking about the future, as well as the way you mentally frame the past and even present circumstances, suggests Bill Rawls, M.D., Medical Director of Vital Plan. It could have a lasting effect on how healthy you are both mentally and physically, both today as well over the next 10 years.
How so? More and more research is finding that disposition, attitude, and outlook — how you think about your life and experiences — play a significant role in health and well-being. Keep reading to learn more, plus get practical advice for shifting your perspective in the positive direction.
6 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Positivity
Most people already realize the mind and body are intimately connected. Nothing makes that as clear as the well-studied harmful effects of stress on your health, Dr. Rawls says.
Now, researchers have also been digging into the other side of it — whether and how positive emotions and a hopeful outlook can positively impact health. And the findings are, well, incredibly positive!
Studies suggest that optimism (the belief that good things will happen) and positivity (seeing the positive sides of challenges, hardships, and the world at large) indeed seem to enhance health and be powerful predictors of future physical and mental health and general well-being. Here are some of the most compelling findings.
Increased Immunity Against Cold and Flu
Of course you can’t always think yourself healthy when you start getting the sniffles. But studies have found that a positive attitude and optimism could help keep you healthier.
Researchers tested nearly 200 people to determine their emotional style and whether it was more positive (meaning generally happier, calmer, and more lively) or negative (anxious, depressed, or hostile), then exposed both groups to rhinovirus (aka the common cold) and influenza. Study participants with a more positive emotional style had a lower risk of developing an upper respiratory illness, both objectively and via self-reported symptoms.
Better Pain Management
A recent research review examined 69 studies that tested the link between optimism and pain, and concluded that positive expectations of the future are indeed associated both with less acute and chronic pain, according to the findings in Behavioral Medicine. But it’s not only optimism that can be beneficial.
Studies also suggest that overall well-being (as in, happiness) and positivity are related to lower levels of pain sensitivity, too. Plus, they can help people adjust to and deal with chronic pain, and even lower the risk of developing severe chronic pain later in life.
Some experts believe the results may be partially due to a placebo effect. In other words, if you think your medicine is effective, it tends to work better, or if you take the view that your pain isn’t that bad, it won’t be.
But higher endorphin levels are likely to also play a role, Dr. Rawls says. Endorphins are natural opioids known to inhibit pain and that naturally increase with feelings of well-being, including positive emotions like love and hope, as well as with physical activity.
“Endorphins are really quite powerful,” Dr. Rawls says. “People with a positive attitude tend to have higher levels and so are more naturally pain resistant.”
Improved Heart Health
Multiple studies suggest optimism, positive emotions, and positive thinking can help your ticker. Not only can having a positive attitude and mental well-being potentially reduce your risk of developing heart problems and having a heart attack (even if you have a family history), it could make any problems you do develop less severe.
For example, research has found that people with chronic angina — chest pain or pressure due to the heart not receiving enough oxygen — who maintained better expectations about their condition and future health said they felt healthier overall at 6- and 12-month follow-ups. They were also 40% less likely to be hospitalized because of their angina.
Lower Rates of Depression
Multiple studies show that optimism helps protect against clinical depression and enhance mental health in general. In one study that followed a group of nearly 500 men, dispositional optimism (meaning a generally optimistic personality) cut the risk of developing depression almost in half.
What’s the connection? Research suggests the protective effect may be due in part to the fact that optimism and positive thinking help people cope with challenges and feel a greater sense of control over their lives.
There’s truth to that clichéd saying that “age is only a number.” A study in the journal PLoS One of more than 4,700 adults age 60 and over found that those who had more positive attitudes about aging were less likely to develop dementia. Even those who carried a genetic disposition for dementia were 50% less likely to show signs of it if they maintained the belief that their advancing age wouldn’t necessarily hold them back.
While optimism helps you live a healthier life, it also increases the chances that you’ll live longer and even reach what’s known as exceptional longevity — defined as making it to at least age 85.
A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America measured optimism levels in thousands of people and then followed them for 10 or 30 years. The most optimistic lived an average of 11% to 15% longer than their less optimistic peers, and had a 50% to 70% greater chance of reaching age 85.
What’s Behind the Power of Positivity
Experts aren’t entirely clear on why optimism and positivity can elicit such incredible effects, but they have some ideas. For one, it’s likely that a positive attitude is pretty much the antithesis of or antidote to stress: Optimism and positivity help reduce, block, or buffer the harmful and prolonged stress response and its resulting negative effects on health.
“If you’ve got an optimistic and positive attitude, you’re not chronically or unnecessarily activating that fight-or-flight stress response, so adrenaline and cortisol levels tend to stay pretty low,” Dr. Rawls says. “And when those hormones are low, it helps your immune system and all the systems of your body work better.”
Indeed, research has shown positive people tend to have lower levels of cortisol and, for women, lower markers of inflammation. That holds true even after scientists account for factors such as obesity and smoking.
Beyond cortisol and inflammation, lower levels of stress also help maintain a more balanced microbiome, Dr. Rawls says. That’s key since your gut helps regulate your immune system, plus it has a direct line to your brain and can influence mental health and neurotransmitters key to mood.
“An unbalanced microbiome produces excitatory chemicals that can rev up our brain and decrease serotonin,” says Dr. Rawls. “And that can potentially lead to depression and anxiety.”
Another factor that may at least partially explain the positive effects of positivity: People who are optimistic, happy, and generally see the world through a more positive lens tend to maintain more health-promoting habits.
For example, research shows they’re more likely to be engaged socially, may be more physically active, and are less likely to smoke. They sleep better, too, according to a new study in the journal Behavioral Medicine.
Even better, the effect actually goes both ways: Those healthy habits then help them stay more positive, creating a cycle that keeps you healthy head to toe.
How to Cultivate Positivity
Some people are naturally more positive — optimism just comes easily. If that’s not you, not to worry: You can learn to be more optimistic and positive and quickly start reaping the wellbeing and healthy rewards.
In one study, for example, changes to optimism among older adults were linked to both objective and subjective improvements in health. The study participants said they not only felt healthier, they also had fewer chronic illnesses as they aged.
“The more effort you make to maintain a positive attitude, the better your life is going to be, the healthier you’ll be, and the more you’ll be able to do,” Dr. Rawls says. Here, a few of his tips:
1. Put Things in Perspective.
“At the root of most stress and anxiety is the feeling you don’t have control over a situation, like when you don’t have the capacity to keep up with your workload, responsibilities, or demands,” Dr. Rawls says. “It’s often just perception, but it feels like a real threat.”
In other words, you mentally write the story of stress and worry — which means you can also rewrite it any time. “Do the mental exercise of putting things into their proper mental place,” Dr. Rawls says. For example, if what’s causing you angst is being up against a deadline, take a moment to acknowledge that it’s likely not a life or death situation.
“The abstract things that seem so stressful, bad, and threatening often aren’t in reality,” says Dr. Rawls. “There’s usually something else to be content about,” he says, and when you focus on it, your outlook naturally shifts toward the positive.
2. Get Moving.
“When you’re feeling negative, down, or in a bad mood, it can be hard to change gears, but I’ve found one thing that short-circuits anxiety and depression and turns around my mood in 15 minutes flat, every time: Exercise,” says Dr. Rawls. “Get out and take a walk or go for a jog, do some yoga, or go for a bike ride.”
Activity is a proven mood booster, in part because it helps stimulate the release of feel-good endorphins and increase energy. It’s even better if you can get your activity outdoors in nature: Research suggests doing so may boost your mood and increase well-being more than indoor exercise.
3. Mind Your Sleep Habits.
“If you’re not sleeping well or getting at least 7 to 9 hours a night, you’ll be dragging and more susceptible to illness, and it will be nearly impossible to maintain a positive attitude,” Dr. Rawls says. Indeed, research proves what most of us sense firsthand: Lack of sleep can make you stressed, irritable, sad, and angry, while chronic insomnia can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
Be sure to set yourself up for a good night by turning off electronics at least an hour or so before bed, sleeping in a cool, dark room, and trying to go to bed and wake up around the same time each night. Herbs such as bacopa, motherwort, passionflower, and full-spectrum CBD can help you unwind so it’s easier to drift off.
4. Eat More Veggies.
What does your diet have to do with positivity? A lot, actually.
For starters, a diet rich in vegetables and other whole, plant-based foods is one of the best ways to maintain a healthy microbiome and gut health, which in turn positively impacts your mood and mental health, Dr. Rawls says. It’s no wonder, then, that plenty of epidemiological studies suggest a poor diet — one high in processed carbs and fast and fried foods — may increase your risk of depression.
Fortunately, the opposite is also true: Cleaning up your diet can boost your mood and help you stay positive. One study found that when people ate a Mediterranean-style diet rich in produce and healthy fats for just three weeks, they saw their scores of depression go from moderate to normal, while anxiety and stress levels also dropped.
Even tiny improvements to your diet, like simply eating more veggies or nuts, can make a difference in depression and mood, according to a study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. Herbs such as berberine and Japanese knotweed are also beneficial for maintaining a balance of healthy gut microbes.
5. Balance Stress with Herbs.
Ashwagandha, an adaptogenic herb with balancing and restorative properties, works on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which is what helps regulate your body’s stress response. Ashwagandha targets the hypothalamus to balance the stress response and normalize cortisol, Dr. Rawls says. It also has calming properties, thanks to its effect on GABA receptors, a class of receptors that respond to the neurotransmitter GABA, which is believed to have a mood-boosting and calming effect on the nervous system.
There’s No Time Like the Present
It’s always a good time to take charge of your health, be it your mental or physical health, but a new decade can serve as great motivation. But if, despite trying these tips and making other efforts, you’re struggling to maintain a healthy positive outlook, consider seeing a therapist who can give you targeted and personalized strategies.
Ultimately, it may take a little time and work to adopt a more predominantly-positive outlook, but you can get to a place where you look ahead to the next 10 years and realize that good things and good health are on the horizon.
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