The Healing Power of Positive Thinking: How Optimism Can Transform Health and Well-Being

The Healing Power of Positive Thinking: How Optimism Can Transform Health and Well-Being

Prince Bhojwani never considered himself a negative person until three hospital visits in one month made him rethink his outlook. Before May 2018, he was a healthy but chronically worried start-up founder who regularly did 20-mile bike rides. When he suddenly could barely walk, experienced blurry vision, and had spiking blood pressure, emergency room doctors suspected a stroke but couldn’t identify the cause. A close friend, known for his optimism, pointed out that Bhojwani often lacked faith that things would work out, which might have led to his burnout.

“I started looking at the world very differently, literally the next day,” said Bhojwani, who lives in New York City. He began meditating and taking a moment every morning to feel grateful for being alive. He also found purpose by co-founding Asana Voices, a South Asian advocacy organization. Since then, despite working longer hours, he hasn’t had any similar health crises. He credits his newfound positive outlook. “After a life-changing event, it forced me to become optimistic,” he said. “I can’t even imagine living the way I did back then.”

Optimism and Health

While optimism is not a cure-all, numerous studies over the years have shown a link between a positive outlook and better health outcomes. The 10-question Life Orientation Test-Revised, published in 1994, is a standard measure of optimism. Generally, optimism is defined as the expectation that good things will happen or believing the future will be favorable because we can control important outcomes.

Hayami Koga, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, led a 2022 study finding that optimism is associated with longer lifespans and a greater chance of living past 90. In another study published in May in JAMA Psychiatry, she and other researchers found that optimists generally maintained better physical functioning as they aged. They studied 5,930 postmenopausal women over six years. “More optimistic people are more likely to live healthier lives, with healthier habits, eating healthier, and exercising more,” Koga said.

Can Optimism Be Learned?

Some people are naturally more optimistic, but it can also be learned, said Sue Varma, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University and author of “Practical Optimism: The Art, Science, and Practice of Exceptional Well-Being.” Optimism training can improve life satisfaction and reduce anxiety. “Even if you weren’t born with a natural disposition to see the glass as half full, you can learn the skills,” Varma said.

Start by noticing how you handle uncertainty. Do you tend to worry or assume the worst? Try to reframe your thoughts objectively. “Is there a silver lining? Is this a problem to be solved or a truth to be accepted?” Varma’s book builds on the work of Martin Seligman, a pioneer in positive psychology. Envision the best possible outcome and a step-by-step path to achieve it. Describe the path in detail until the problem is resolved and celebrate your success. “You then approach your day as if things have worked out,” she said. “You become more proactive, positive, resilient, and buoyant in the face of obstacles.”

Finding a sense of purpose is also beneficial. Volunteering can help, but if time is an issue, try to align your work role more closely with your interests. For example, a social person might organize outings with co-workers.

Mastering a new skill, whether a sport, musical instrument, language, or hobby like knitting or chess, can prevent negative rumination. Changing your mindset is not easy, but practice helps. “It’s a toolset, it’s a mindset,” Varma said. “I have to practice it every day in my mind.”


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