WHAT'S YOUR OUTLOOK - The Benefits Of Positive Thinking Mayo Health Clinic            

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? How you answer that question may reflect your outlook on life and whether you view situations positively or negatively.

Studies show that your mental health can influence your physical health. And certain personality traits such as optimism or pessimism can influence how well you live and even how long you live.

A healthy outlook A study in the August 2002 issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings reports that people who expect misfortune and who only see the darker side of life don't live as long as those with a more optimistic view.

Researchers evaluated results from a personality test taken by participants more than 30 years ago and compared them to subsequent mortality rates. They found that people who scored high on optimism had a 50 percent lower risk of premature death than those who scored more pessimistic.

Besides a lowered risk of early death, researchers found other health benefits related to positive attitude. In the study, optimists reported:

  • Fewer problems with work or other daily activities because of physical or emotional health
  • Less pain and fewer limitations due to pain
  • Less interference from physical or emotional problems when engaging in social activities
  • Increased energy
  • Feeling more peaceful, happier and calmer

The results could lead to ways to help pessimistic people change their perceptions and behaviors and thereby improve their health and perhaps lengthen their lives, says Toshihiko Maruta, M.D., a psychiatrist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., and lead author of the study.

"It confirmed our common-sense belief," says Dr. Maruta. "It tells us that mind and body are linked and that attitude has an impact on the final outcome death."

The researchers said they couldn't definitively explain how a pessimistic outlook acts as a risk factor for decreased longevity. Dr. Maruta says optimists may be less likely to develop depression or "learned helplessness," a condition that occurs when someone is exposed to repeated punishment or negative conditions and perceives no chance of getting away. Optimists also might be more likely to seek and receive medical help, seeing bad events as specific, temporary and controllable.

Pessimists, on the other hand, see life events negatively and expect the worst possible outcome. When bad events occur, pessimists often blame themselves and see problems as permanent and pervasive. "It would help if they interpreted their negative experiences in such a way that they didn't blame themselves when things went wrong," Dr. Maruta says. "It also would help if they didn't think bad situations or experiences were going to last and realized that such circumstances often are temporary."

Positive attitudes and aging

Positive attitudes about aging may affect your quality of life as you get older. If you expect to live a long life filled with physical vitality, humor and social connections, those fundamental beliefs can shape your future for the better.

But if you're convinced that old age will be a time of emptiness, depression and sickness, you'll probably find yourself experiencing a mental desolation that may lead to physical debilitation. In general, your negative expectations can make you age faster than nature intended.

Your perception of aging may also impact how long you live. The August 2002 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports that older individuals who viewed aging in a positive light lived 7.5 years longer than those who had a negative view of aging.

Are You Satisfied?

Other research suggests that you can increase your chances of living to a ripe old age just by being satisfied with your life.

According to a study published in the November 2000 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, life satisfaction can increase the length of your life. Researchers from the University of Turku in Finland found that men who reported high levels of satisfaction with their life were more likely to be alive 20 years later. Men dissatisfied with their lives were more than twice as likely to die within that timeframe regardless of cause and more than three times more likely to die of a disease. The study found no association between life satisfaction and mortality in women.

Life satisfaction refers to a general sense of well-being and takes into account your interest in life and your feelings of happiness or loneliness, the report explains. Although marriage, exercise, higher social class, not smoking and drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may decrease your risk of early death, the association between feeling satisfied and living longer may play an important role in living longer.

In the March 2001 issue of American Journal of Psychiatry, these same researchers report that dissatisfaction with life can also lead to higher rates of suicide. People who reported dissatisfaction in two surveys showed a higher risk of suicide compared with those who repeatedly reported feeling satisfied. In fact, over the course of the study, highly dissatisfied men were 14 times more likely to commit suicide than satisfied men. The study suggests that these findings reflect the known association between depression and suicide, and the researchers conclude that life dissatisfaction may be an early sign of future mental problems.

Recognizing dysthymia Do you find yourself unsatisfied with life even when you have every reason to be happy? Have you achieved many of your goals and still feel dissatisfied? Do you have everything you've ever wanted but still complain?

People who can't seem to find happiness or satisfaction in life may have a type of depression known as dysthymia (dis-THI-me-uh). Far less obvious than symptoms of major depression overwhelming feelings of sadness, grief, worthlessness or guilt dysthymia is a less severe but more continuous form of depression. Symptoms usually aren't disabling, and periods of dysthymia can alternate with short periods of feeling normal. But having dysthymia can increase your risk of major depression.

Signs and symptoms of dysthymia are similar to those of major depression but not as intense, and you may not experience as many of them. They include:

  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Social withdrawal
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness or sluggishness
  • Problems sleeping
  • Weight loss or gain

Unlike a major depression, which may last between 1 or 2 years, dysthymia is difficult to recognize and can last 5 years or longer. If you experience dysthymia, you lose the health benefits of optimism and life satisfaction and increase your risk of dying at a younger age. The longer dysthymia lasts, the more likely you are to develop major depression, increasing your risk of illness and even suicide.

Come on, get happy

Life inevitably presents challenges and frustrations. It's up to you to look for ways to improve your satisfaction with life and enhance your overall well being. You can do a number of things to experience greater joy and pleasure in life:

  • Exercise. Aerobic exercise releases endorphins substances that produce feelings of satisfaction and wellness which reduces stress, depression and anxiety. Exercise can also produce feelings of mastery and accomplishment while reducing irritability and anger.
  • Eat well. Both your body and your mind need good nutrition to run efficiently. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and grains can improve the way you feel.
  • Get plenty of rest. Sleep refreshes you. It improves your attitude and gives you energy for physical activity and coping with stress.
  • Reduce stress. Eliminating stress and conflict in your life can be exhilarating. Identify the areas of your life that cause you the most stress, then simplify.
  • Get organized. Having control of your life may be just what you need to feel happy about it. Do all you can to keep your life as organized and free of chaos as possible.
  • Take a step back. Write down all the good things about your life. If your list is short, add a section of new goals you'd like to achieve. Focus on being satisfied with the life you have your health depends on it.