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We Are the Architects of Our Lives

How optimism affects how we age and develop diseases.

Key points

  • Healthy 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.
  • Optimism is a significant predictor of beneficial health outcomes.

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, and learning and memory. They were also found to down-regulate the genes mediating the destruction of neurons. What this means is that if you see something pleasurable, it can change your gene expression.

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, and even mortality.

How we live our lives can significantly affect 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. In contrast, smoking and high body mass index (BMI) increased it.

Steve Cole, professor of Medicine, Psychiatry, and Biobehavioral Sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine, has written much on the subject of self-regulation. He holds, and I agree with him, that we are architects of our own lives more than we realize, and 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 will make us feel even better about ourselves. Thus, we create a self-reinforcing reward system grounded in epigenetics.

Being optimistic also helps. 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, and 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 a bipolar illness can manage the disease better than pessimists. A recent meta-analysis confirmed these associations.

A recent study from Poland explored 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 indicated statistically significant differences (p<0.001) between these four variables: for example, healthier health behaviors promote a stronger sense of coherence and higher levels of optimism and self-efficacy. It was also demonstrated that LOO, SOC, SE, and HB correlate with one another. These and many more studies add to a growing body of research on how an optimistic outlook contributes 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

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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).
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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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