A sense of optimism is pivotal to good health and longevity. Researchers have found that optimists are much happier, healthier and live longer than pessimists, and actually even recover better from illness. Best of all, it cost absolutely nothing to be an optimist.
The scientific study of optimism began with a problem recognized by psychologist Martin Seligman as he began his graduate training at the University of Pennsylvania. He noticed that dogs that were being trained for an experiment in which they heard a tone and were expected to learn to jump to another box were lying down and “giving up”. When they heard the tone, they would receive a brief, mild shock and were expected to escape the shock by jumping into another compartment of the experimental box, which is usually an easy task for a dog to learn. He noticed that sometimes the dogs would just respond to the tone and the shock by simply displaying whimpering, lying down and “giving up” behaviors.
Martin Seligman hypothesized that during the training the dogs were “learning to be helpless”. What he found was that no matter what they did, they could not avoid the shock, so they no longer would even try. He went on to devise an experiment with three groups of dogs:
• The “escapable shock” dogs received shocks but could turn them off by pressing a button with their noses.
• The “no personal control” dogs were paired with the escapable shock dogs. They received the same shocks as the “escapable shock dogs” although nothing they did affected when the shocks would end.
• The “no shock” dogs didn’t receive any shocks.
Both the “escapable shock” dogs and the “no shock” dogs learned to escape the shock by jumping to the other compartment in seconds. The “no personal control” dogs however just gave up, would lie down and just received the shocks. They never learned that the shocks could be avoided by jumping to the other compartment. Literally hundreds of studies have been conducted with people, rats, and dogs that have come to the same conclusion, that a “giving up” occurs when individuals cannot escape aversive circumstances.
Seligman described optimism as how we think about the causes of good things and bad things that happen to us, or our “explanatory style”. Optimists have a bias in their thinking and interpretations that continue to give them hope to keep on trying in spite of difficulties. Pessimists have been found to have a neutral posture or even a negative bias.
Pessimists have been found to experience more depression due to their negative explanatory style. They have also been found to have more health problems. One study of optimism and heart attacks found that eight years after the heart attack, 24% of the optimists have died and 84% of the pessimists had died. Another study assessed optimism and pessimism and also found that after 30 years, pessimists had much higher mortality rates.
When pessimists face adversity, they are much more likely than optimists to believe there is nothing they can do to help themselves. Since they’re also less likable than optimists, they also tend to have a smaller social support network, which is another factor that contributes significantly to higher risk for illness and poorer prognosis for recovery from illness.
Some information from Defy Aging by Michael Brickey Ph.D
Additional Information and webpage by Paul Susic Ph.D Licensed Psychologist