Can hopefulness for a bright future lead to better health? Research shows that, in some circumstances, it can.
This is what’s known as optimism — and it has a remarkable connection to all sorts of important health markers, from how well your immune system works to your risk for having a stroke.
But you should know that optimism is no silver bullet and some types can even be unhealthy.
Here, learn what optimism is, the way it impacts your health, how you can be more optimistic, and how to tell whether your optimism is healthy or unhealthy.
What Is Optimism?
Optimism is an attitude characterized by hope, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). When you’re optimistic, you feel like positive things will happen and that things can change for the better.
It can apply to how you see the future or how you make sense of the world, and it’s generally good for you, says psychologist Claudia Trudel-Fitzgerald, PhD, an assistant professor at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and researcher at the Institut Universitaire en Santé Mentale de Montréal, both in Canada, who studies how optimism impacts health.
Common Questions & Answers
The 3 Types of Optimism
There are three main types of optimism you’ll encounter day to day: dispositional optimism, explanatory optimism, and unrealistic optimism, says Dr. Trudel-Fitzgerald.
1. Dispositional Optimism
“Dispositional optimism is a generalized expectation about your future,” says Suzanne C. Segerstrom, PhD, MPH, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, who studies self-regulation and health.
When people with high dispositional optimism think about the future, they recognize they may face challenges, but ultimately believe they’ll figure things out, adds Trudel-Fitzgerald.
Unlike happiness and other emotions that ebb and flow throughout the day, dispositional optimism is essentially a personality trait and — unless you intentionally work at it — is mostly stable over time. “That means we all have a set point,” says Trudel-Fitzgerald. “As we go through life, through ups and downs, we’ll come back to our own level of optimism.”
2. Explanatory Optimism
Like the name suggests, this type of optimism has to do with how you explain why certain things happen to you, says Trudel-Fitzgerald.
If you have high explanatory optimism, you’ll take good things that happen to you personally and feel confident they’ll keep happening, she says. On the flip side, you think bad things that happen to you aren’t necessarily your fault and won’t inevitably repeat.
For example, Trudel-Fitzgerald says that someone with high explanatory optimism who gets into grad school will attribute their good fortune to hard work and feel it bodes well for future career success. Someone with low explanatory optimism will say their acceptance was just a lucky fluke, she adds.
Explanatory optimism differs from dispositional optimism because explanatory optimism is a thinking pattern rather than a part of your personality — in other words, it’s a habit that can change through deliberate practice. And those with higher dispositional optimism are more likely to engage in explanatory optimism.
3. Unrealistic Optimism
At times, feeling hopeful about the future is part of a thought pattern that isn’t entirely logical — this is known as unrealistic optimism. Also called optimistic bias, unrealistic optimism refers to the way that we tend to expect good things to happen to us more often and bad things to happen less often than they do to others, explains Dr. Segerstrom.
What Causes Someone to Be Optimistic or Not?
Just like most other psychological characteristics, nature (genetics and biology) and nurture (your surroundings) both contribute to dispositional optimism, says Segerstrom.
Experts aren’t exactly sure how big of a role genetics play in optimism.
One study of teenage Dutch twins, published in February 2015 in the journal European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, found that genetics accounted for 38 percent of optimistic tendencies. The data show that identical twins (who usually share 100 percent of their genetics) have more similar results on surveys measuring optimism compared with fraternal twins and non-twin siblings (who share only about 50 percent of their genetics). Because all siblings have overlap in their surroundings at home, comparing these groups helps researchers understand just how much of a role genes play when it comes to optimism.
Another earlier twin study, published in Structural Equation Modeling: An Interdisciplinary Journal, pegged the genetic contribution at 20 percent. Other estimates tend to fall in between.
These findings suggest that the genes we inherit from our biological parents at birth do bear on how optimistic we are, but don’t explain it 100 percent. They also suggest that optimism is less heritable than other personality traits like neuroticism or extroversion, which are about 50 percent heritable, says Segerstrom.
The rest of what influences optimism — aside from this genetic component — has to do with your life circumstances and what you do on a daily basis, says Trudel-Fitzgerald. That means there are things you can do to become more optimistic. “This is a muscle that can be developed,” she says.
Other things that can influence how optimistic you are can include, according to a research review published in 2018 in American Psychologist:
- Childhood experiences
- Financial situation
- Education level
- Relationships with other people
What Optimism Feels Like and How It Potentially Affects Your Health
Optimism feels a bit like hope. It’s the sense that things can improve and should likely work out, says Whitney Goodman, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Miami. “You can have that mindset while still being in a difficult time,” she adds.
If that mindset sounds like one that promotes well-being, decades of research show that to be the case. Some of those findings are:
- Optimistic people may have better mental health. Even in tough circumstances, optimism seems to support emotional wellness. One study of women with breast cancer, published in October 2022 in BMC Psychiatry, found that those who were more optimistic also reported fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- Optimistic people may have improved cardiovascular health. Optimism appears to be particularly good for your heart. A systematic review and meta-analysis of 15 studies, published in September 2019 in JAMA Network Open, found that optimistic people had a reduced risk of all kinds of cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and heart attack.
- Optimistic people may have better respiratory health. One study of nearly 2,000 current and former smokers found that those with higher optimism also had better lung function.
- Optimistic people may live longer. One huge study — nearly 160,000 racially diverse women participated — found that optimism is linked to a longer lifespan than pessimism. The researchers even found that optimistic people were more likely to have lived to age 90 or beyond.
It’s important to point out that optimism, even with all its benefits, isn’t a cure-all. Trudel-Fitzgerald notes that research on optimism and cancer, for example, is more muddied, with the best results showing only a small association between optimism and a lower likelihood of bad outcomes.
Still, being optimistic might matter in other ways, even when its health benefits are more muted. In one study of people who had advanced cancer, those with greater optimism — agreeing with statements like “overall I expect more good things to happen to me than bad” — also reported a better quality of life. The findings were published in the journal Psychooncology.
“After seeing all of these associations between optimism and long-term physical health, of course, the one million dollar question is, ‘how does that work?’” says Trudel-Fitzgerald. Researchers are looking into several different pathways to explain what might be going on, she says. Some possible explanations are:
- Optimism may lead you to make healthier choices. Research, including a study of older adults in China, has found that healthy behaviors like staying active, being socially connected, not smoking, and not drinking heavily account for at least some of the reasons optimistic people are healthier than those who are less optimistic. The findings were published in April 2022 in BMC Public Health.
- Optimism may change the body in positive ways. Optimism appears to actually alter your biology. Some studies, including one published in Psychological Science, have shown a connection between optimism and improved immune response. One study of 114 male Japanese workers found that optimistic people tended to have a particular pattern of gene expression that’s known to lead to less inflammation and a better ability to fight off infection. Other research that focused on the association between optimism and blood pressure found that optimistic people tend to have readings in a healthier range.
- Optimism may help you have better relationships. Some researchers have argued that the benefits of optimism could be social in nature, since feeling supported is good for you — and some research has emerged in favor of this finding. The results of one study of nursing home residents, published in the September–October 2022 issue of Geriatric Nursing, found that those who were more optimistic also said they felt more supported by friends and family. The researchers noted that gratitude also played a key role in their levels of optimism and sense of social well-being.
- Optimism may help you cope with stress. Believing that you can handle what comes your way may actually help you navigate setbacks. Optimistic people seem better able to deal with stressful situations and feelings head-on, according to a review of 50 studies, published in Personality and Social Psychology Review.
How to Be More Optimistic
You don’t have to see the glass as half-full all the time to reap the benefits of optimism. “Even people who have a moderate level can still see some small health benefits, which I think is pretty exciting,” Trudel-Fitzgerald says.
Segerstrom, Trudel-Fitzgerald, and Mary Jo Kreitzer, PhD, RN, a professor of nursing and director of the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, say you have plenty of options for how to move the needle toward optimism for yourself. Here are some you can try.
- Try therapy. Therapy that’s guided by a mental health professional can help you reframe how you think about challenging situations and feel more hopeful about the future.
- Practice meditation. Mindfulness — a type of meditation in which you focus your thoughts on the present moment rather than the past or future — can help you cultivate positive feelings, says Dr. Kreitzer.
- Try gratitude. Gratitude can be a gateway to optimism, helping you to see the good things that you have now, which can help you expect more good things in the future.
- Imagine your best possible self. When you take time to imagine things in your life going as well as they possibly can, it can be easier to feel optimistic, says Trudel-Fitzgerald. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California in Berkeley offers a tutorial on how to try this evidence-based activity.
- Act like an optimist. “I think that the key to optimism's positive effects is actually what they do, not what they believe,” says Segerstrom. “That means that you don't have to 'be' optimistic, you have to 'do' optimistic.” You can “do optimistic,” for instance, by trying a little longer to solve a problem or opting to view a situation from multiple perspectives or more positive perspectives than you may normally do.
When Optimism Is Not Healthy
While optimism is by and large a positive trait, it can be taken too far, says Goodman, who is the author of Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real In A World Obsessed With Being Happy.
When you’re hopeful to the point of ignoring the very real issues in front of you, that’s an indicator that you’re verging into toxic positivity, Goodman explains. Toxic positivity is a kind of unrealistic optimism that minimizes or denies negative feelings, even in situations that warrant them, to the detriment of your health.
Unrealistic optimism can also lead you to take risks with your physical health. One study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that people who were more optimistically biased, claiming they were less likely to get sick than someone else, were also less likely to say they wore a mask to protect themselves from the virus. The findings were published in December 2021 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
“One of my favorite descriptions of optimists is that they expect the most positive outcome that reality can deliver — the key word being reality,” says Segerstrom. While unrealistic optimism can be unhealthy, optimism that’s grounded in reality has positive effects on your motivation, coping, and, ultimately, health, she says.
Resources We Love
Favorite Optimism-Boosting Organizations
Pursuing optimism can be incredibly difficult if you’re battling anxiety and depression. Please know that you’re not alone and specialized support can help. We count on the ADAA for evidence-based care and resources. Its webinars, in particular, have a reassuring, practical quality, and a number of them explore resilience, of which optimism is a key ingredient.
We love evidence-based approaches to holistic health, so it probably doesn’t surprise you that we love this project from the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. If you’re looking to be more optimistic, peep its page on gratitude, an expert-endorsed, optimism-boosting strategy.
Favorite Support Groups
If you’re experiencing symptoms of mental health conditions like depression or anxiety, for instance, and would like to boost your optimism, the standard advice might not work for you. Here you can find support groups filled with people who get where you’re coming from and can help you navigate challenging situations.
Favorite Way To Find Optimism-Supporting Therapists
The APA is a trustworthy source for how psychologists think about important topics. Its resources on optimism are top notch. If you’re interested in seeing a psychologist, the APA has a search tool to help you find one near you.
Practicing optimism is one of those skills that really benefits from having a trusted guide along for the ride. Licensed therapists are trained in many of the building blocks of optimism, like reframing thoughts, and can help you figure out your personal pitfalls too.
Favorite Optimism Books
‘Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind and Your Life,’ by Martin Seligman
Dr. Seligman is arguably the biggest name in the psychology of optimism. He’s a researcher, but this book won’t make your eyes glaze over. Consider this a friendly guide to optimism from one of the greats.
‘Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive,’ by Barbara Fredrickson
Written by a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who is one of the leading voices on optimism, this book features insights from years of research on optimism and how you can achieve it in real life.
‘Toxic Positivity: Getting Real In A World Obsessed With Being Happy,’ by Whitney Goodman
The quintessential guide to optimism taken too far, this no-nonsense read is written by a licensed marriage and family therapist who’s also big on social media. You can preview her work on Instagram at @sitwithwhit. If you like the vibe, you’ll love her book.
Favorite Optimism Assessment
It can be tricky to tell how optimistic you are. If you want to understand yourself better, we love the free survey from VIA. After you take it, you’ll be able to see where you stand on 24 character strengths (including hope — a stand-in for optimism) and can choose to purchase a full report with ideas for how to flex those strengths.
Favorite Apps for Boosting Optimism
Curious about boosting optimism with mindfulness? This app provides you with a practical place to start, putting mindfulness-related courses, podcasts, and guided meditation in your pocket.
Favorite Optimism Podcast
Psst! If you want a treasure trove of tips on practical positivity, you’ll adore this podcast from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California in Berkeley. This episode digs into the science of optimism, including a deep dive into the Best Possible Self Practice.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Alessandri G, Vecchione M, Fagnani C, et al. Much More Than Model Fitting? Evidence for the Heritability of Method Effect Associated With Positively Worded Items of the Life Orientation Test Revised. Structural Equation Modeling: A Multidisciplinary Journal. October 12, 2010.
- Optimism. American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology.
- Applebaum AJ, Stein EM, Lord-Bessen J, et al. Optimism, Social Support, and Mental Health Outcomes in Patients with Advanced Cancer. Psychooncology. March 2014.
- Best Possible Self. Greater Good Science Center at the University of California in Berkeley.
- Interview With Whitney Goodman. The Collaborative Counseling Center, Miami. February 2023.
- Interview With Mary Jo Kreitzer. Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing at University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. February 2023.
- Interview With Suzanne C. Segerstrom. Department of Psychology at University of Kentucky, Lexington. February 2023.
- Interview With Claudia Trudel-Fitzgerald. Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, Canada. February 2023.
- Kim ES, Hagan KA, Grodstein, F, et al. Optimism and Cause-Specific Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study. American Journal of Epidemiology. January 1, 2017.
- Koga HK, Trudel-Fitzgerald C, Lee LO, et al. Optimism, Lifestyle, and Longevity in a Racially Diverse Cohort of Women. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. October 2022.
- Koo HK, Hoth KF, Make BJ, et al. Optimism Is Associated With Respiratory Symptoms and Functional Status in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Respiratory Research. January 2022.
- Kubzansky L, Boehm J, Allen A, et al. Optimism and Risk of Incident Hypertension: A Target for Primordial Prevention. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences. August 14, 2020.
- Liu C, Luo D, Zhou Y, et al. Optimism and Subjective Well-Being in Nursing Home Older Adults: The Mediating Roles of Gratitude and Social Support. Geriatric Nursing. September–October 2022.
- Mavioglu RN, Boomsma DI, Bartels M. Causes of Individual Differences in Adolescent Optimism: A Study in Dutch Twins and Their Siblings. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2015.
- McColl K, Debin M, Souty C, et al. Are People Optimistically Biased About the Risk of COVID-19 Infection? Lessons From the First Wave of the Pandemic in Europe. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2022.
- Mo Q, Tan C, Wang X, et al. Optimism and Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression Among Chinese Women With Breast Cancer: The Serial Mediating Effect of Perceived Social Support and Benefit Finding. BMC Psychiatry. October 5, 2022.
- Nes LS, Segerstrom SC. Dispositional Optimism and Coping: A Meta-Analytic Review. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 2006.
- Rozanski A, Bavishi C, Kubzansky LD, Cohen R. Association of Optimism With Cardiovascular Events and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Network Open. September 27, 2019.
- Scheier, MF, Carver, CS. Dispositional Optimism and Physical Health: A Long Look Back, a Quick Look Forward. American Psychologist. December 2018.
- Segerstrom SC, Sephton SE. Optimistic Expectancies and Cell-Mediated Immunity: The Role of Positive Affect. Psychological Science. March 2010.
- Uchida, Y, Kitayama, S, Akutsu, S, et al. Optimism and the Conserved Transcriptional Response to Adversity. Health Psychology. 2018.
- Yue Z, Liang H, Qin X, et al. Optimism and Survival: Health Behaviors as a Mediator — a Ten-Year Follow-Up Study of Chinese Elderly People. BMC Public Health. April 6, 2022.