Optimism is a fascinating strength. And, yes, it is considered a strength by strengths experts - like the Values in Action Institute. If you have not taken the free assessment, I encourage you to do so. It takes about 20 minutes and uses scientifically-based questions to help you discover your top strengths.
Health is influenced by optimism. There are a number of studies on this relationship. Each year, I have my Positive Psychology for Nursing students spend one week developing "optimism building" nursing interventions to see what influence this may have on their actual clients.
So, what is the relationship between optimism and health? If I were to put it briefly in layman's terms, I would say that those who think their actions to improve health will make a difference, well, take action. There is some good research published on optimism and health, if you want to see the science.
This got me wondering about research done on optimism during pregnancy. I found some nice studies - I will share quotes here with links to the articles:
Women who were least optimistic delivered infants who weighed significantly less, controlling for gestational age. Optimists were more likely to exercise, and exercise was associated with lower risk of preterm delivery. Results suggest that chronic stress in pregnancy may be a reflection of underlying dispositions that contribute to adverse birth outcomes. Lobel, et.al. (2000).
Women's self-reported experience of the ease or difficulty of the current pregnancy . . . Those who reported having the easiest pregnancies had the highest levels of optimism. Moyer, et.al. (2009).
Pessimism appears to be a stronger correlate than optimism—suggesting that having positive thoughts/expectations may not be as helpful as not having negative thoughts/expectations during pregnancy. Moyer, et.al. (2010)
I was glad to see the research, but not surprised at the findings. I have delivered over 3K babies in my career . . . not all their moms were optimists. I became aware of a difference in how women approached pregnancy through my own experiential knowledge years ago. I remember the women who told me, from the very first prenatal visit, that they knew they would need a c-section. Those same women were more likely, it seemed, to show up at the hospital and do little but writhe in pain and beg for an operative delivery. Did this facilitate a non-surgical birth? I don't think so.
I was early in my nurse-midwifery career when I first observed these differences. This was long before I knew about positive psychology and probably about the time Martin Seligman was just starting to take steps that would create this new approach to psychology. I knew I needed to intervene, as my hospital had one of the highest c-section rates in the state.
My intervention was simple . . . provide empowering prenatal education. I started classes (free to my clients) because I figured I made-up this time by spending less hours in L&D trying to work with these women, when it was often too late to change their mindset. The shift was pretty profound . . . this same population of women (after classes) started showing up and requesting to walk, take a shower or experience some contractions in the jacuzzi. The c-section rate for the hospital dropped over 10% (there were two physicians and myself in practice, so my influence on the totals was strong.)
It has been 10 years since I delivered a baby . . . or as midwives say "attended a birth", but in my heart, I will always by a Certified Nurse-Midwife. As I develop services for my wellbeing coaching practice, I think about those women. Had prenatal classes focused on "what they could control" about their labor actually raised optimism in my clients? I would guess that is exactly what happened.
So, with this in mind, I am in-process with developing wellbeing classes for pregnancy. These would provide sound prenatal education AND employ wellbeing/optimism building exercises to augment the more traditional class (where breathing patterns and epidurals may be the main topics.) It seems that giving women and their families the tools of positive psychology wellbeing would be a gift of real value to the world. I am excited about it!
Until the optimistic sun rises in our minds again . . .
Cathy Hartt, RN, MS, CNM
Midwife of Changes Wellbeing Coaching Services
(for blog with links embedded - please visit my blog at http://midwifeofchanges.blogspot.com/2012/03/simple-steps-to-wellbeing-promoting.html