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We Are the Architects of Our Lives

Optimism is a significant predictor of beneficial health outcomes.

Key points

  • Good health behaviors promote a stronger sense of coherence, and higher levels of optimism and self-efficacy.
  • Pleasurable activities can change your gene expression for the better. The opposite also applies.
  • If you want your friends and colleagues to like and respect you, feel good about yourself.
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I am in charge of my life
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According to a new study from the University of Helsinki, classical music fans, when listening to Mozart’s violin concerto No. 3, G-major, were found to upregulate the activity of their genes involved in dopamine secretion and transport, synaptic neurotransmission, learning and memory, and down-regulate the genes mediating the destruction of neurons, which is all for the good. What this means is that if you find something pleasurable, it can change your gene expression. Not Mozart per se.

How we live our lives can have significant effects on how we age and develop diseases including cancer. On the physical side of the equation, if we look at colon cancer, researchers from the University of Basel found that aspirin and hormonal replacement therapy reduced the methylation rate of colon cancer related genes, whereas smoking and high body mass index (BMI) increased it.

Steve Cole, Professor of Medicine, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences UCLA School of Medicine, has written much on the subject of self-regulation. He holds, and I totally agree with him, that we are architects of our own lives more than we realize. Our subjective experience carries more power than our objective situation. If we feel good about ourselves, not only will our health improve but so will our relationships. As a result, our friends and colleagues will like and respect us, which in turn will make us feel even better about ourselves. Thus, we create a self-reinforcing reward system grounded in epigenetics.

A study from Oregon State University on aging found that how people thought about themselves at age 50 predicted a wide range of future health outcomes up to 40 years later -- cardiovascular events, memory, balance, will to live, hospitalizations, even mortality.


In general, optimistic people live longer than pessimistic people. A thorough review of the medical literature to determine the strength of the association between optimism and physical health revealed that optimism was a significant predictor of health outcomes in cardiovascular disease, including immune function, stroke, cancer, complications related to pregnancy, physical symptoms such as pain and risk of disease.


People who feel enthusiastic, hopeful and cheerful – what psychologists call 'positive affect' – are less likely to experience memory decline as they age. It does not necessarily mean they will never get ill (mentally or physically), but optimists diagnosed with bipolar illness are able to manage the disease better than pessimists. A recent meta-analysis confirmed these associations.


A recent study from Poland explores the relationships between psychological variables such as health behaviors (HB), sense of coherence (SOC), level of optimism (LOO), and self-efficacy (SE) among 455 college students. These separate measures were used to create a novel construct of positive health attitude (PHA).

The results indicate statistically significant differences (p<0.001) between these four variables: for example, healthier health behaviors lead to a stronger sense of coherence, level of optimism and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, behave and motivate themselves.

These and many more studies add to a growing body of research on the contribution an optimistic outlook makes to health.
Of course, I am not suggesting a “fake it till you make it” attitude. Cultivating creativity, imagination, self-reflection, living a meaningful and engaged life takes work but is an investment in our overall well-being — and potentially the well-being of our children.

References

Anthony, E. G., Kritz-Silverstein, D. & Barrett-Connor, E. Optimism and mortality in older men and women: The Rancho Bernardo study. J. Aging Res. 2016, 5185104 (2016).
Giltay, E. J., Geleijnse, J. M., Zitman, F. G., Hoekstra, T. & Schouten, E. G. Dispositional optimism and all-cause and cardiovascular mortality in a prospective cohort of elderly Dutch men and women. Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 61, 1126–1135 (2004).
Kim, E. S. et al. Optimism and cause-specific mortality: A prospective cohort study. Am. J. Epidemiol. 185, 21–29 (2017).
Kubzansky, L. D., Sparrow, D., Vokonas, P. & Kawachi, I. Is the glass half empty or half full? A prospective study of optimism and coronary heart disease in the Normative Aging Study. Psychosom. Med. 63, 910–916 (2001).
Lee, L. O., James, P., Zevon, E. S., Kim, E. S., Trudel-Fitzgerald, C., Spiro, A. et al. Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 116, 18357–18362 (2019).
Nabi, H. et al. Low pessimism protects against stroke: The health and social support (HESSUP) prospective cohort study. Stroke 41, 187–190 (2010).
Pankalainen, M., Kerola, T., Kampman, O., Kauppi, M. & Hintikka, J. Pessimism and risk of death from coronary heart disease among middle-aged and older Finns: An eleven-year follow-up study. BMC Public Health 16, 1124 (2016).
Posadzki, P., Stockl, A., Musonda, P. & Tsouroufli, M. (2010). A mixed-method approach to sense of coherence, health behaviors, self-efficacy and optimism: Towards the operationalization of positive health attitudes. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 51, 246–252.
Rozanski, A., Bavishi, C., Kubzansky, L. D. & Cohen, R. Association of optimism with cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Netw. Open 2, e1912200 (2019).
Scheier, M. F. & Carver, C. S. Dispositional optimism and physical health: A long look back, a quick look forward. Am. Psychol. 73, 1082–1094 (2018).
Scheier, M. F. & Carver, C. S. Optimism, coping, and health: Assessment and implications of generalized outcome expectancies. Health Psychol. 4, 219–247 (1985).
Tindle, H. A. et al. Optimism, cynical hostility, and incident coronary heart disease and mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative. Circulation 120, 656–662 (2009).
Whitfield, J. B., Zhu, G., Landers, J. G., & Martin, N. G. (2020). Pessimism is associated with greater all-cause and cardiovascular mortality, but optimism is not protective. Scientific reports, 10(1), 1-7.

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