Can thinking positively improve your health? Some research has suggested that optimists live longer and are less likely to die prematurely than pessimists. Now, research published in the August 2002 issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings suggests that optimists may be in better overall health as they age than pessimists.

About the study

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic studied 447 men and women living in Olmstead County, Minnesota who had participated in a study of different personality types between 1962 and 1965. At that time, 1145 men and women completed the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a questionnaire that assesses personality type. For the purposes of this analysis, researchers were interested in the optimism-pessimism scale of the MMPI, which classifies people as optimistic, pessimistic, or of mixed personality type.

In 1993 and 1994, the 447 participants (of the original 1145) who were still alive completed the 36-Item Short Form Health Survey (SF-36). On this questionnaire, patients rated their health-related quality of life for the following measures:

  • Physical functioning
  • Limitations due to physical problems
  • Bodily pain
  • General health perception
  • Vitality
  • Social functioning
  • Limitations due to emotional problems
  • Mental health

Researchers compared the SF-36 scores of pessimists with those of optimists and people with mixed personality type. In addition, they compared the scores of participants in this study with average SF-36 scores of the U.S. population, as assessed in other published research.

The findings

Pessimists scored lower than optimists and mixed personalities on all eight measures of health-related quality of life. Although optimists and mixed personality types shared similar scores for most of these measures, optimists did have higher scores than mixed personality types for vitality and mental health.

When compared to national averages, pessimists’ scores were lower than the national average for five of the eight health-related quality of life measures. Conversely, scores for optimists and mixed personality types were higher than the national averages.

Although these findings suggest that an optimistic outlook leads to better health, this study has its limitations. For example, the SF-36 measures a person’s perception of their health, which may not correlate to their actual health. The researchers did not review participants’ medical records to assess the number of illnesses, injuries, and medical conditions—factors that would provide a more objective measure of health status. It’s not surprising that people who have a more positive outlook in general (optimists) would have a more positive perception of their own health than people with an overall negative outlook (pessimists).

How does this affect you?

Back to our initial question: Can thinking positively improve your health? Maybe. These findings suggest that optimists feel better about their health than pessimists, but we don’t know if they actually have fewer or less severe illnesses and medical conditions. More research is needed to definitively answer this question.

Still, feeling good is a good place to start. The aging process brings with it additional medical conditions and health challenges for everyone. Like other challenges in life, how you approach these challenges may very well affect the outcome.