In 2019, the World Happiness Report named Finland, Denmark, and Norway as the happiest countries in the world. (The US was #19.) The personal and social criteria these surveys selected, including health, finances, activities of daily life, companionship, and location, seem reasonable.
However, happiness is in the eye of the beholder. Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones of Happiness, lists pleasure, pride, and purpose as the “secret sauce,” while spiritual leaders cite faith, gratitude, and doing things for others. I personally believe happiness is to some degree a choice. Let’s examine the health benefits of optimism and how having a positive outlook improves your health.
Greatest Benefit of Optimism: Better Health
Like good nutrition, adequate sleep, and regular exercise, a positive outlook on life is a cornerstone of optimal health. Though scientists aren’t sure exactly how optimism promotes good health, they suspect it has to do with the effects of your mental outlook on immune function. An entire field of medicine called psychoneuroimmunology studies the interactions between the brain and the nervous and immune systems, and research on the effects of thoughts and emotions on immunity are particularly compelling. From laughter to tears, friendship to romantic love, your emotions and attitudes all have a bearing on your health.
If you tend to focus on the negative side of things, let me assure you that you’re not doomed to carry a cloud over your head for the rest of your life. Even the most committed pessimist can learn the skill of optimism. Here’s how:
Count Your Blessings
As Einstein pointed out, everything is relative. While pessimists tend to focus on what is wrong with their lives, optimists are more likely to count their blessings. If your life seems particularly unblessed, there’s an easy way to use the principle of relativity to help you expand your appreciation of your good fortune: practice “downward comparison.”
For example, if you’re stuck in traffic, remind yourself, “At least I have a car.” If you burn dinner, remember, at least you have food to eat. If there’s a task you’re dreading, finish this sentence three different ways: “At least I don’t have to ___________.”
Don’t feel guilty about comparing yourself to those worse off than you. The fact is that people who use this technique are more likely to act compassionately towards others.
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
You probably know that your feelings can affect your body language. When you’re happy, you smile, and when you’re confident, you stand taller and look people in the eye.
Studies have shown that you can actually “change your mind” by changing your body language. Smiling on the outside sends a message to your brain, which makes it “assume” that you’re happy. Walking tall and meeting people’s glance will likewise “tell” your brain that you are confident and upbeat. The positive feedback you’ll get in response from others will reinforce your feelings of optimism.
Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine
Some of the health benefits of laughter are obvious. People who laugh a lot usually have a positive attitude and the ability to find humor even when things aren’t going well. Because these folks are fun to be around, people gravitate toward them, and they generally have a strong social network, which benefits not only them but everyone around them.
But laughter does more than make you feel good. A hearty belly laugh has many of the same physiological effects as exercise. In addition to working out your muscles, especially those in your face and core, laughter temporarily increases your pulse, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and oxygen delivery throughout the body. It also stimulates the release of nitric oxide, a signaling molecule that relaxes the blood vessels, enhances blood flow, and reduces inflammation and platelet clumping. Vigorous, sustained laughter even burns calories!
Laughter also positively alters brain function. Researchers have discovered that laughing provokes gamma-wave activity, the type of brain waves that dominate during meditation, and boosts the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with the brain’s reward and pleasure pathways.
Laughter also reduces levels of stress hormones and may even improve memory. In a study conducted at Loma Linda University, healthy people in their 60s and 70s who had watched a funny video had lower levels of cortisol and performed better on tests of recall compared to those who simply sat quietly prior to testing.
Take Advantage of the Health Benefits of Optimism
Like strong and flexible muscles, a positive mental outlook enables you to respond proactively to the challenges of life. So resolve to cultivate an attitude of optimism, hopefulness, and confidence. It is one of the simplest and most profound ways to enhance your emotional and physical well-being.