By Amanda MacMillan for Men's Journal
Perpetual optimists claim that their cheery dispositions bring them better health. It turns out that theory is not all in their heads: There is real scientific evidence to support a positive attitude protecting your mind and body, says Fred Bryant, professor of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago -- and everyone can benefit from the glass-half-full thinking.
For example, optimistic people are half as likely to experience a cardiovascular event (like a heart attack or stroke) compared with their less positive peers, found a recent review of more than 200 previous studies. Sometimes these correlations can be attributed to "confounding factors," like the fact that happier people may be less likely to be obese, poor, or involved in unhealthy behaviors. But in this review, the association held true even after the researchers controlled for things like smoking, body weight, and socioeconomic status.
People who think positively may also live longer, be less likely to catch colds, and be better able to cope during hard times, according to more research. Researchers aren't entirely sure why, but they think it may have to do with happy people's lower anxiety levels, which protect against the harmful physical effects of chronic stress, such as inflammation and high blood pressure.
Other research has shown that positive thinking can trump physical exhaustion. When physically fit men and women gave themselves repeated motivational talks on stationary bikes in one study, they rode 18 percent longer before hitting the point of total exhaustion.
So what if you aren't a natural optimist? Bryant says anyone can train himself to think more positively, simply by practicing one simple skill. "Crucial to being happy and healthy is the capacity to savor the moment -- to appreciate ongoing positive experiences in our everyday lives."
There are plenty of ways to accomplish that, too. Bryant says it's as easy as taking note of small, positive things in your life, and being thankful for them, taking the time to soak up and appreciate everyday beauty -- a sunset, your kid playing in the yard — and feeling pride and accomplishment doing a job well.
Of course, positive thinking isn't inherently a good thing. It can be detrimental if it makes you overlook misfortunes that could otherwise be prevented. "Optimists who never wear a seat belt because they are certain they will not have a car accident, for example, may put themselves at greater risk of injury than pessimists who are worried about a crash," says Bryant.
In the end, it may be healthiest to expect the best -- and to savor the good times when they come along -- and also be prepared for the worst.