“Everything’s going to be fine.” Go on, try to convince yourself, because realism can be bad for your health. Optimists recover better from medical procedures such as coronary bypass surgery, have healthier immune systems and live longer, both in general and when suffering from conditions such as cancer, heart disease and kidney failure (Annals of Behavioral Medicine, vol 39, p 4).
It is well accepted that negative thoughts and anxiety can make us ill. Stress – the belief that we are at risk – triggers physiological pathways such as the “fight-or-flight” response, mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. These have evolved to protect us from danger, but if switched on long-term they increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes and dementia.
What researchers are now realizing is that positive beliefs don’t just work by quelling stress. They have a positive effect too – feeling safe and secure, or believing things will turn out fine, seems to help the body maintain and repair itself. A recent analysis of various studies concluded that the health benefits of such positive thinking happen independently of the harm caused by negative states such as pessimism or stress, and are roughly comparable in magnitude (Psychosomatic Medicine, vol 70, p 741).