How optimism can help well-being

Optimism is maybe not only a moral duty, but it can also help your feelings of well-being. A new study suggests that the mechanism behind this is that optimism may limit how often one experiences stressful situations. Do note that in this study only men participated.

From the press release:

“Don’t worry, be happy,” is more than just song lyrics. A growing body of evidence supports an association between optimism and healthy aging, but it is unclear how optimism impacts health.

When it comes to dealing with day-to-day stressors, such as household chores or arguments with others, a new study has found that being more or less optimistic did not make a difference in how older men emotionally reacted to or recovered from these stressors. However, optimism appeared to promote emotional well-being by limiting how often older men experience stressful situations or changing the way they interpret situations as stressful.

“This study tests one possible explanation, assessing if more optimistic people handle daily stress more constructively and therefore enjoy better emotional well-being,” said corresponding author Lewina Lee, PhD, clinical psychologist at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder at the VA Boston Healthcare System and assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.

The researchers followed 233 older men who first completed an optimism questionnaire; 14 years later, they reported daily stressors along with positive and negative moods on eight consecutive evenings up to three times over an eight-year span. The researchers found more optimistic men reported not only lower negative mood but also more positive mood (beyond simply not feeling negative). They also reported having fewer stressors which was unrelated to their higher positive mood but explained their lower levels of negative mood.

While studies have increasingly supported the idea of optimism as a resource that may promote good health and longevity, we know very little about the underlying mechanisms. “Stress, on the other hand, is known to have a negative impact on our health. By looking at whether optimistic people handle day-to-day stressors differently, our findings add to knowledge about how optimism may promote good health as people age,” says Lee.

Abstract of the study:

Growing evidence supports optimism as a health asset, yet how optimism influences well-being and health remains uncertain. We evaluated 1 potential pathway—the association of optimism with daily stress processes—and tested 2 hypotheses. The stressor exposure hypothesis posits that optimism would preserve emotional well-being by limiting exposure to daily stressors. The buffering hypothesis posits that higher optimism would be associated with lower emotional reactivity to daily stressors and more effective emotional recovery from them.

Participants were 233 men from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study who completed the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 Revised Optimism–Pessimism scale in 1986/1991 and participated in up to three 8-day daily diary bursts in 2002–2010 (age at first burst: M = 76.7, SD = 6.5). Daily stressor occurrence, positive affect (PA), and negative affect (NA) were assessed nightly. We evaluated the hypotheses using multilevel structural equation models.

Optimism was unrelated to emotional reactivity to or recovery from daily stressors. Higher optimism was associated with higher average daily PA (B = 2.31, 95% Bayesian credible interval [BCI]: 1.24, 3.38) but not NA, independent of stressor exposure. Lower stressor exposure mediated the association of higher optimism with lower daily NA (indirect effect: B = −0.27, 95% BCI: −0.50, −0.09), supporting the stressor exposure hypothesis.

Findings from a sample of older men suggest that optimism may be associated with more favorable emotional well-being in later life through differences in stressor exposure rather than emotional stress response. Optimism may preserve emotional well-being among older adults by engaging emotion regulation strategies that occur relatively early in the emotion-generative process.

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