The new normal for me has required more generous listening to what my patient families have experienced, directly or indirectly, as a result of the pandemic and what their greatest concerns are.
Explore This IssueJanuary 2021
So, with winter cases surging, how can we experience and embody optimism as we head into a new year with vaccinations against COVID-19 on the horizon?
The Benefits of Optimism
According to Wikipedia, optimism is “an attitude reflecting a belief or hope that the outcome of some specific endeavor, or outcomes in general, will be positive, favorable, and desirable.” This is usually referred to in psychology as dispositional optimism, and it reflects a belief that future conditions will work out for the best. For this reason, optimism is seen as a trait that fosters resilience in the face of stress (Weiten W, Lloyd M. Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth; 2005).
Optimism is directly tied to psychological and physical well-being and moderately correlates with health (Peterson C, Park N, Kim ES. Can optimism decrease the risk of illness and disease among the elderly? Aging Health. 8:5–8). It has been shown to explain 5–10% of the variation in the likelihood of developing certain health conditions (correlation coefficients between 0.20 and 0.30) (Peterson C, Bossio LM. Optimism and Physical Well-Being. In Chang, EC, ed. Optimism and Pessimism: Implications for Theory, Research, and Practice. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association; 2001: 127–145.), specifically cardiovascular disease, stroke, and depression (Kim, ES, Park N, Peterson C. Dispositional optimism protects older adults from stroke: the health and retirement study. Stroke. 2011;42:2855–2859; Giltay EJ, Zitman FG, Kromhout D. Dispositional optimism and the risk of depressive symptoms during 15 years of follow-up: the Zutphen Elderly Study.” J Affect Disord. 2006;91:45–52; Patton GC, Tollit MM, Romaniuk H, et al. A prospective study of the effects of optimism on adolescent health risks. Pediatrics. 2011;127:308–16).
One 30-year study undertaken by Lee and colleagues assessed the overall optimism and longevity of cohorts of men and found a positive correlation between higher optimism levels and exceptional longevity, defined as a lifespan exceeding 85 years (Lee LO, James P, Zevon ES, et al. Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiological cohorts of men and women. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2019;116:18357-18362.) Another study by Aspinwall and Taylor assessed incoming college freshmen on a range of personality factors, such as optimism, self-esteem, and locus of self-control, and found that those who scored high on optimism before entering college were reported to have lower levels of psychological distress and were less stressed, lonely, and depressed than their more pessimistic peers (Scheier MF, Carver CS. Effects of optimism on psychological and physical well-being: theoretical overview and empirical update. Cognit Ther Res. 1992;16:201–228).
In addition, low optimism may help explain the association between caregivers’ anger and a reduced sense of vitality (López J, Romero-Moreno R, Márquez-González M, Losada A. Anger and Health in Dementia Caregivers: Exploring the Mediation Effect of Optimism. Stress Health. 2015;31:158–165). A meta-analysis of optimism supported previous findings that optimism is positively correlated with life satisfaction and psychological and physical well-being, and negatively correlated with depression and anxiety (Alarcon GM, Bowling NA, Khazon S. Great expectations: A meta-analytic examination of optimism and hope.” Pers Individ Differ. 2013;54:821–827). Researchers found that optimists choose healthier lifestyles, are more physically active, consume more fruit, vegetables, and whole-grain bread, and are more moderate in their alcohol consumption.