Optimism and Health

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
Oscar Wilde

In the mid-1980s, a number of psychologists and cardiologists studied 120 men from San Francisco who had recently had a first heart attack. The researchers provided training to change the personalities of these men from type A (aggressive, hostile, time urgent) to type B (easy going). They were disappointed to discover that their intervention had no effect on the health of these men. Within eight and a half years, half of them had died of a second heart attack.

The Role of Optimism and Health

At the same time as the original study, a graduate student from Penn State University, Gregory Buchanan, interviewed the same men about their families, jobs, and hobbies. He video-taped these interviews and went back and coded the content of their interviews as either optimistic or pessimistic. Not a single usual risk factor (blood pressure, cholesterol, damage from the first heart attack, etc.) predicted a second heart attack. However, optimism, as determined eight and a half years earlier, was correlated to a second heart attack. Fifteen of the sixteen most pessimistic men died from a second heart attack. Only five of the sixteen most optimistic men died of a heart attack. This study shows correlation of Optimism and Health (Study reported in the book Flourish, by Martin Seligman, 2011.)

Self-Mastery and Health

Many other medical studies, from all over the world, report similar findings. Twenty thousand healthy British adults were followed from 1996 to 2002. Three hundred and sixty five of them died from cardiovascular disease. Of the many physical and psychological variables that were measured at the outset of the study (smoking, social class, neuroticism, hostility, etc.) only one was strongly associated with death–helplessness vs. a sense of self-mastery. Self mastery was measured by their responses to such statements as: “I have little control over the things that happen to me.” “There is no way I can solve some of the problems I have.” “There is little I can do to change many important things in my life.” “I can do just about anything I set my mind to.” “What happens to me in the future depends on me.” And so on.

People who were high on self mastery (one standard deviation above the mean) had twenty percent fewer deaths than those average in self mastery. Those who were low in self mastery and high in helplessness had twenty percent more deaths than average. This was true of all deaths due to all causes.

What Does This Mean?

As I consider these studies, I find it fascinating that optimism and self mastery are more predictive of health (and death) than physical attributes directly correlated with health and disease. Why?

  • Optimism may be correlated with blood chemistry (more white blood cells) and/or brain chemicals (endorphins) that are protective from disease.
  • It may be that optimists are more likely to take action in the face of bad news by doing such things as improving their life styles.
  • Maybe optimists have more social support from family and friends, and thereby experience more of the healing effects of love.
  • Perhaps positive thoughts and will trump the physical realities of life.

Most likely all of the above are at play in the lives of optimists. Optimism and Health go hand in hand.

You Can Increase Your Optimism

The good news is that we can increase our optimism and sense of self mastery. Although the most recent science tells us that we’re born with a “set point” for happiness, we control, by the power of our minds and ability to choose, about fifty percent of the optimism and happiness factor. Through strategies like expressing gratitude, forgiving others, accepting difficulties as part of life, being present in the moment, enjoying simple pleasures, and challenging self-defeating thinking, we can become more positive and not only live happier, but often, longer lives.

To learn how to be optimistic have a look at our blog post How to be optimistic



  1. Jan Mayer

    Very interesting information! Your father is the best example I know of this finding. He lived much longer than doctors expected because of his driving sense of purpose. Having that sense seems to be closely tied to optimism and self-mastery.

    • Roger Allen

      You’re right, Jan, about his strong sense of purpose. He did live much longer than anyone expected. As I mention in my latest blog (November 7, 2013), he’s my example of resilience.


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