By Jane Meredith Adams
And not only in the short run. There’s evidence that optimists live longer, too. A 9-year study of cardiovascular health in more than 900 men and women in the Netherlands found that pessimists not only die sooner of heart disease than optimists, but they also die sooner of just about everything. And pessimism has even been linked to higher odds of developing dementia.
Fortunately, a grim outlook doesn’t have to be permanent. Leading researchers say that optimism and pessimism are two ends of a continuum, with about 80% of the US population scattered from mildly to relentlessly optimistic. But research reveals that if you’re hunkered down on the other end, you can slide on over—or at least get some of the benefits that usually cluster on the optimistic side of the scale, says Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, an optimism researcher at the University of Kentucky and author of Breaking Murphy’s Law. It takes only a few changes. They’re small, gradual—and not what you’d expect.
In one of Segerstrom’s favorite studies, researchers asked a group of people to use a beautiful piece of classical music to raise their moods, while telling other volunteers simply to listen to the symphony. The result: The concert didn’t help those who were focused on lifting their spirits—but the others wound up feeling much better.
“To truly be happy, you have to stop trying,” says Segerstrom (it’s true; naturally happy people never do these 6 things). Even monitoring yourself—Am I feeling better yet?—gets in the way, studies show.
Instead, aim to be engaged. “Engagement bypasses pessimism,” she says. One reason: When you’re fully involved in something, it can distract you from a pessimist’s favorite pastime—rumination. (That’s what psychologists call the destructive pattern of obsessing endlessly over problems or concerns.) When you’re ruminating, it’s not just a bad day—it’s always a bad day, and a bad life, and you’re a bad person. The habit will blow up even a minor problem to billboard size. It takes up so much bandwidth, who has room to focus on a solution? It’s no surprise that optimists accomplish more than pessimists.
Attitude adjustment: Find quick distractions you can use when you realize you’re stuck on the same negative thought, suggests Segerstrom. Try activities that demand your full attention: Go to a yoga class (or a kickboxing or aerobics class, where you have to commit fully to avoid falling on your face). At the office, try calling a friend or switching on some absorbing music. (Distract yourself and get ridiculously toned at the same time with Prevention’s 10-minute Fit in 10 workouts.)
Ruminating is just one road to pessimism. Another habit that dims your outlook: a process called catastrophizing, mentally rewriting grim possibilities until they become true doomsday scenarios. A simple cough turns into pneumonia (and not the kind you recover from, either). One missed deadline is the first step in a fast trip to permanent unemployment.
This rumination-and-catastrophization combo packs a terrible one-two punch: Worst-case scenarios may be absurd, but playing them over and over makes them seem not only logical but inevitable. And it sucks the joy out of life.
Attitude adjustment: Exaggerate those scenarios to the point of comic hilarity, says Karen Reivich, PhD, codirector of the Penn Resiliency Project at the University of Pennsylvania and coauthor of The Resilience Factor. “At some point you think, Oh, come on, now. Am I really going to be living beneath an underpass in a refrigerator box because I’m a day late on a project?”
Don’t stop with the refrigerator box. Picture yourself trying to trap squirrels for supper—maybe even whipping up some squirrel fondue for the other bag ladies you’ve met under the bridge. Then paint the opposite scenario. Your project makes your company a million dollars! You’re promoted to CEO! Finally, write down the outcome that’s most likely. Chances are, it won’t include the executive suite—or the one under the freeway.
“The beauty of this goofing around is that you feel a bit of power over your thoughts and the situation,” Reivich says. “That sense of control is the antidote to pessimism.”