Friends, food, and flourishing

Optimism and health

Cryptid Kitchen explains many aspects of flourishing. The content is grouped into topic areas.

One topic is the relationship between optimism and health. It’s at a campsite.


It’s more specific than other topics. I’m not sure how useful it is. What do you think?

One thing I find interesting is what it tells us about causality, that is, what the true cause of something is. People who are more optimistic are healthier. The evidence is there. But what do you so with that data?

One inference you could draw: just be optimistic, and you’ll be healthier. Like, visualize what you want, and it will happen.

Um, no, not really. The reason optimism and health are correlated is that optimistic people tend to think they have control over what happens to them. They are more likely to exercise and so other Good Things, because they think those things will work. Pessimistic people are more likely to think what they do doesn’t matter, so why exercise?

The link between optimism and health is real, but it isn’t direct. It goes through another variable. Optimism leads to behavior change leads to health improvement.

Here are the knowledge nuggets on the topic. Like every topic area, it starts with a sign introducing the topic, and ends with a concluder dog.

Optimistic people tend to be healthier. But why? Figuring it out tells you something about flourishing.

Most of the nuggets in this camp are about studies scientists have done. The cute concluder corgi brings them together.

Researchers tracked about 1,000 seniors (65 to 85 years old) in the Netherlands for nine years. They measured lots of things, including optimism.

Almost 400 of the seniors died over the period. Not surprising, given their age. But the researchers found something about optimism and health.

Optimists had only 23 percent the rate of CVD [cardiovascular disease] deaths of the pessimists, and only 55 percent the overall death rate compared to the pessimists.

Seligman, Flourish, page 192, Kindle edition

Hmm. Maybe positive thinking makes you healthier? Does that sound right?

This was a big study. Track 97,000 (!) women over eight years. Measure age, blood pressure, much else, including optimism. What happened?

The optimists (the top quarter) had 30 percent fewer coronary deaths than the pessimists (bottom quarter).

Seligman, Flourish, page 193, Kindle edition

Something’s going on here. But what?

Researchers tracked 120 men who had their first heart attacks. Eight years later, about half had died. Optimism predicted survival.

…of the sixteen most pessimistic men, fifteen died. Of the sixteen most optimistic men, only five died.

Seligman, Flourish, page 190, Kindle edition

MothmanOK, like, maybe optimism caused something else? That is related to heart health?
Take more than 1,300 military veterans. Measure a bunch of stuff, including optimism. Any difference between optimists and pessimists in cardiovascular disease (CVD)?
MothmanGiven the other nuggets, I’m guessing “yes.”

Men with the most optimistic style (one standard deviation above average) had 25 percent less CVD than average, and men with the least optimism (one standard deviation below the mean) had 25 percent more CVD than average.

Seligman, Flourish, page 191, Kindle edition
Why is this happening?
MothmanOoo! Idea! We know exercise makes you healthier, and so does eating well. Like, maybe optimists exercise more? Or something?
Track 20K Brits, for six years. Measure lots of stuff, including questions like “What happens to me in the future mostly depends on me.” This measures agency, people’s sense of mastery over their lives. Back to the data. Over the six-year period, 365 died of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Guess what?

People high (one standard deviation above the mean) in mastery had 20 percent fewer CVD deaths than those with an average sense of mastery, and people high in a sense of helplessness (one standard deviation below the mean in a sense of mastery) had 20 percent more CVD deaths than average.

Seligman, Flourish, page 191, Kindle edition

Mothman Soooo… people who think they control their own future, maybe they so things that help them be healthy?
OK, so optimistic people are healthier. Why? Mothman thinks optimistic people might do things that make them healthier. Any evidence?

…optimists are more likely to exercise, less likely to smoke, more likely to live with a spouse, and more likely to follow medical advice than pessimists.

 Optimism and your health, Harvard Health Publishing, 2008
MothmanHey, I was right!
There are other things in the mix, too. Take learned helplessness, when people learn that nothing they do can help them escape something unpleasant. Like, no matter how hard or well they work, there’s no extra reward. So they stop trying. You can read more on Wikipedia.
MothmanPeople who think like that, well, why bother exercising? Is that the way it goes?
Good thinking MM! Let’s see if concluder dog can help put everything together.  

The data is overwhelming that optimistic people tend to be healthier. But why? Is it proof of the power of good thoughts? Hmm. Maybe there’s more to it.

Agency is how much you think you can control your life. If it’s low, you think you’re at the mercy of outside forces. If it’s high, you think you can change things for yourself.

Agency is situation dependent. You might not have agency at work, but maybe you do in your LARP group.

However, there’s a personal-attribute part of it, too. Some people think “I can’t do anything about it” when new situations come up, even when there’s no evidence one way or another.

Part of optimism is a belief you control at least some of the things that happen to you. That includes your health. You’re more likely to exercise, because you think you can control whether or not you do it. Exercise has a huge effect on health, especially cardiovascular disease.

A lesson here: if you learn X causes Y, look for a mechanism. Optimism causes health? Hmm, not clear how. Optimists have greater agency, they are more likely to exercise because they think it will work for them, and that improves health? A more believable story.

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