Optimism, Pessimism, Mental Health & Chronic Illness

“Positivity is not about how to maintain a positive attitude, but how to produce positive emotions.” – Frederickson, 2009.

“Research indicates that pessimism correlates with depression, lowered achievement, and health problems.” – Martin Seligman, 1998.

If you don’t know who Seligman is, that’s totally okay and to be honest totally normal if you haven’t studied psychology. He’s the founder of positive psychology (which does not say that positivity is the cure to mental health, just to be clear) and has done a lot of research in this area. For me, the interesting part of the statement isn’t the mental health aspects, which are a bit less surprising, but the physical health part, because what does that mean for people with a chronic illness?

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Okay, so here’s a quick overview of some research of optimism vs. pessimism and chronic pain or illness. According to Forgeard and Seligman (2012) disease may progress slower for optimists than for pessimists. Optimists typically have better cardiovascular (heart) functioning and less heart disease, and they may have better immune functioning (though the research is more mixed on that the later). They also found that cancer patients had better survival rates one year after diagnosis if they were optimists, and that in general optimists are about half as likely to die from whatever disease they have than pessimists are. They do caution that some studies don’t show this effect and/or the results are negative, but it’s theorized that the stage of disease may play into this. They also theorize that unrealistic vs. realistic optimism plays a role. (I’ve often said that you can be – and that I am – a realistic optimist).

Life of a realistic optimist.

In terms of chronic pain, Ramirez-Maestre et al. (2012) found that optimism leads to better overall well-being and this might have to do with coping strategies that optimists and pessimists use. Basically, pessimists are more likely to use passive coping strategies such as avoidance and optimists are more likely to use active coping strategies such as acceptance. Active coping leads to lower pain severity, less depression, and better daily functioning.

I don’t know about you, but less pain always sounds good to me!

I can hear some of you saying, “But I’m naturally pessimistic! I can’t help it!” Positive psychology actually shows that we can have learned helplessness and learned optimism – yes, I said it, we can learn optimism. It’s not necessarily a fixed part of personality and there is research to support that. Basically, if we learn to combat negative self-talk, we can become more positive. Pessimism is caused by selecting our attention to certain things as well as a lack of internal confidence in our abilities to control or change parts of our lives (learned helplessness) so when we fail at something, we blame it on something within us we can’t change. I hope I didn’t lose anyone during this.

Seligman explains this way better than I do.

If you want to be more optimistic here’s something things you can do, according to Seligman:

  • utilize gratitude (maybe use a gratitude journal or write a gratitude letter)
  • help others in need (by volunteering for example)
  • challenge your negative thoughts and believes (what’s the evidence for and against them)
  • tackle your negative self-talk (trying changing it)

In the Science of Well-Being course taught by Yale professor Laurie Santos, she explains that only 50% of our happiness comes from genes. So, if you’re still believing that you can’t change from being a pessimistic to an optimistic because it’s how you are born, then remember that. 10% of our happiness comes from our circumstances, and the last 40% comes from our actions and thoughts. Which means, you can still improve your levels of happiness (and thereby some aspects of your health) even if you’re not naturally inclined to optimism.

If you haven’t checked out The Science of Well-Being course yet (it’s free), then I highly recommend it!

I hope this was helpful for some of you! Let me know how it goes with those four techniques to learning optimism! Keep on making the most of it!

Positive Psychology and Physical Illness

Before everyone starts hating on positive psychology, I’m going to give you a bit of a break down of it. As some of you know, I’m doing my Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology so I’m learning a lot about the different theories of counselling. Though I want to take an integrative approach in my practice, positive psychology is something that interests me. Here’s why:

  • the focus is on strengths, positive experiences, positive emotions (i.e., what’s good in life, not just what’s bad)
  • optimism and gratitude are encouraged (however, if you’re not an optimist then you shouldn’t be coerced into being one)
  • unrealistic optimism isn’t healthy, and neither is too much pessimism
  • emphasis on finding meaning in life and being authentic as it will lead to less stress and anxiety
  • there needs to be balance between positive and negative feelings and experiences
  • you can learn to shift your perspective from negativity to positivity
  • focus is finding ways to foster hope in your life
Word-ArtImage from: https://condorperformance.com/positive-psychology/

So what does this have to do with physical illness. Well, if it isn’t obvious already, positive psychology can help us shift our view of our illness(es) from being something that is terrible and completely disruptive of our lives, to something that we can draw strength and resilience from. Regardless of whether we are sick or healthy, we all have strengths (I would say mine are perseverance, optimism, and communication). We all still experience good things (fun times with friends and family for example), and positive emotions (unless you’re truly unhappy 100% of the time, you do experience happiness, love, contentment, etc.). This doesn’t mean we can’t have bad days or be unhappy, it means that we can choose to acknowledge the good days and the good things that happen as well.

XD0OdKzwQF2hBF41kefPEQEngaging in self-care kind of goes hand-in-hand with positive psychology.

I like the idea of meaning making (if you read my post on existentialism you’ll know this about me). So my original goal was to make movies and entertain. As my health deteriorated, I sought out new meaning and found that I want to help and inspire people (thus this blog, my podcast, and my new degree). The other part of this is finding ways to foster hope. I think that for people who are very sick, finding hope is difficult. I volunteer at a crisis text line for kids and teens. One of the articles I often send texters is on fostering hope. Here are some suggestions from the article: positive thinking, focusing on the future (and changes that will happen), look at the big picture rather than the details that are easy to focus on, remember your successes (however small – did you go for a walk around the block today? that’s a success), be patient with yourself because you’re doing the best you can, and reach out for support when necessary.

WsZ19goHSlyhimnYpy5C9QPursuing more education was an important step in finding my new life meanings.

Is positive psychology the only way to improve your mental health when you have a physical illness? Certainly not, but hopefully this was some food for thought.

Also, in case you haven’t heard, I have a podcast! It’s call Chronically Living and how to make the most of it. It’s available on Apple Podcasts! Check it out and please leave me a rating and review!

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Reference:

https://kidshelpphone.ca/get-info/8-ways-foster-hope-your-daily-life