Health and Optimism: How Positivity Prevents Diseases

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Flourish" by Martin E. P. Seligman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How does optimism affect your physical health? Can a positive attitude protect you from illnesses?

Flourish by Martin E. P. Seligman writes that optimism not only mentally makes you feel better, but it can also improve your physical health. Research shows that people with high well-being have a lower risk of premature death and are less vulnerable to diseases.

Discover more about how physical health and optimism affect each other.

Well-Being Is Good for Your Health

Seligman writes that having more positive emotions and high well-being improves your health and protects you from illnesses—whether it’s cardiovascular disease, cancer, or the common cold. He cites research that suggests that people with high well-being have an 18% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with low well-being. According to Seligman, the most notable trait contributing to this better health is optimism, and health can be improved by a positive outlook on life that increases your well-being.

(Shortform note: There’s ample research that corroborates Seligman’s assertion that optimism wards off illnesses and prolongs your life, with one study finding that optimistic women were more likely to live beyond age 90.)

People who are optimistic tend to be less vulnerable to diseases for several reasons:

  • They believe their actions matter. Unlike pessimists who tend to feel more helpless, optimists take action to improve their circumstances, such as caring for their health and practicing good habits.
  • They have more social support. Seligman writes that people who express positive emotions more often find it easier to connect with people and form more supportive relationships.
  • They handle stress better. According to Seligman, stress tends to impact pessimists more heavily than optimists, and frequent stress has negative effects on your health. For instance, people who have more positive emotions produce less of a substance that causes blood clots.

(Shortform note: In Mind Over Medicine, Lissa Rankin explains why stress affects your body differently depending on your mindset: Negative beliefs keep you in a state of stress and panic, which activates your body’s fight-or-flight response. This response can damage blood vessels, increase your risk of heart attack, weaken your immune system, and lead to stiff muscles if it happens too often or for too long. Conversely, if you have positive beliefs, you relax and brush off stress more easily, which counteracts the effects of the fight-or-flight response. This allows your body to heal and recover, making it more resistant to disease.)

How to Think More Optimistically
While Seligman lists many benefits of optimism, he doesn’t explain how you can become a more optimistic thinker. Although some research suggests that optimism is partially genetic, there are ways you can cultivate it. 

One of the traits of optimists is that they take more action than pessimists. If you tend to feel helpless in situations, Norman Vincent Peale recommends you practice forming positive mental pictures of how you want things to be. After visualizing your desired outcome, you can take action to make it a reality. By imagining yourself in a better situation and recognizing ways you can change it, you may find it easier to overcome your feelings of helplessness.

Another trait of optimists is that they have a lot of social support. You can build up your support system by following these steps: First, identify what kind of support you need. Do you need close friends who will listen to you or a professional who can help guide you through your struggles? Second, nurture the relationships you already have. Reach out to your friends and family and spend more quality time with them. Third, if you want to add new people to your life, find others who share your interests. Join groups or clubs that do activities you enjoy to make new friends.
Health and Optimism: How Positivity Prevents Diseases

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Here's what you'll find in our full Flourish summary:

  • Why happiness is not the key to enjoying life to the fullest
  • Why we should be focusing on well-being over happiness
  • Actionable advice for enhancing global and personal well-being

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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