The Healing Power of Optimism – A Positive Outlook Can Improve Quality of Life and Health

The Benefits of Staying Positive

There are many benefits associated with staying positive. This is supported by the fact that a continually growing body of research points to the benefits of viewing things in a positive light rather than negatively. Researchers believe that positive thinkers have no lasting negative effects since they are able to handle the effects of stress much more effectively than negative thinkers. Stress leads to fatigue, headaches, insomnia, and many other health issues which can in many cases be attributed to negative thinking.

                                                                                  Photo Credit: Philips Communications

Focus on the Positive

During a drastic life change such as losing a job, loved one, or chronic illness, it is often hard to view things in a positive light. There are many times when the blame is focused inward which compounds the stressful effects. Optimists focus on the good and what they can change in the situation rather than assume the solution is out of their control. When it comes to a chronic illness or the loss of a job (especially when a company is doing regular cutbacks, etc), there often are not many things a person could have done differently. The key to managing stress is believing one can make a change and then working little by little to implement the change.

Life Events and Their Correlation with Attitude

One long-term study conducted by Harvard researchers looked at 99 of the 1944-1945 graduating class members. The graduating members answered questions from surveys and the researchers rated the questions from positive to negative. The study found a strong correlation over the years with those who had always been positive, those who changed from negative to positive in their early to middle adulthood and those who went from positive to negative over the course of the study. They found that those who had always been positive and those that changed from negative to positive fared the best. On the contrary, those that changed from positive to negative and those that remained negative throughout had many more health complications. Their overall health situation was also much worse.

Why Does Pessimism Lead to Harmful Health Consequences?

As discussed above, pessimism in early adulthood that was not corrected led to health risks in later adulthood. What was causing the elevated health risk? When the body is stressed, it produces a hormone called cortisol. This hormone was great for our ancestors who needed to be alert in situations of peril. However, many day-to-day stressful activities such as a mean boss can lead to elevated cortisol levels. Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, and more.

A Case Study of Positive Thinking

One last case study is in regards to a doctor who studied 750 Vietnam War veterans. These veterans were prisoners of war that were abused and tortured. Dennis Charney, MD, dean of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, had all 750 veterans take a test and noticed one thing in common. Those who did not develop post-traumatic stress disorder or suffer from depression or depression-related symptoms had optimism at the top of the list of ten things that set them apart from the other veterans. Next to optimism was selflessness, humor, a belief in a higher power, and that there was meaning behind their lives and risks – all aspects of a positive outlook.

Jacob Edward is the Manager of Prime Medical Alert and Senior Planning in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Jacob founded both companies in 2007 and has helped many Arizona seniors and their families navigate the process of long-term care planning. Senior Planning provides assistance to seniors and people with disabilities in finding and arranging assisted living in Phoenix, as well as applying for state and federal benefits.

Caring for the Needs of the Aging Workforce

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As the American population continues to age, there is an opportunity and a need to adequately respond to the unique needs of older adults. Ensuring a social structure that considers the needs of the aging is important, particularly as it is projected that by 2030, the number of Americans 65 and older will double and comprise nearly 20% of the total population. Comprehensively responding to the needs of the aging should include measures that protect the health, well being, and quality of life of older adults.

Included among the social changes that have been observed within the aging population in the U.S. is that more older American adults are delaying retirement and choosing to remain in the workforce past the traditional retirement age of 65. The desire to remain employed stems from improved quality of life among the aging and the capacity to continue working. However, for many older Americans, there is also a need to continue working due to economic pressure. According to recent research, 75% of Americans that were nearing retirement in 2010 had less than $30,000 available in their retirement accounts. With dwindling access to Social Security funds and the projected extension of the eligibility age to receive Social Security funds to 67 years of age in 2017, financial insecurity for the aging is requiring older workers to remain employed beyond the time they may have considered retirement.

There are benefits to older adults remaining in the workforce – both individually and occupationally. It has been noted that among older adults who remain employed, their cognitive capacity is less likely to diminish as compared to their non-employed peers due to mental engagement within the workplace. Additionally, research has shown that employers value the presence, contribution, and input of older workers and report that older employees exhibit knowledge related to job tasks, respond resiliently to job-related stressors and changes, and are willing to learn new tasks quickly. Added financial resources are also a significant benefit for older Americans who remain employed beyond retirement age.

Recent economic crises, however, have left few immune to financial loss. For older adults, financial loss as a result of the “Great Recession” have led to this need to continue working and raise enough money on which to live after retirement. For older adults who lost their jobs during the recent economic downturn, many reported that they continued searching for employment with little luck due to hiring preferences in many industries for younger employees. This represents a persistent area of vulnerability for the aging, as financial uncertainty after retirement remains a reality for many.

Diana Kingsbury is a PhD student and graduate assistant in prevention science at the Kent State University College of Public Health.