The Benefits of Optimism

Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health found that depression shares a circuitry in the brain with optimism, the tendency to look on the favorable side of things. We know that optimism positively affects our mental and physical health. People who are depressed, in contrast, tend to be overly pessimistic.

In studies, scientists have temporarily turned off non-depressed individuals' normal bias towards positive thinking, depriving the brain of serotonin, a naturally occurring mood-regulator. The study participants then began to exhibit uncharacteristic signs of depression, demonstrating a biochemical connection between positive thinking and depression. This doesn't mean, however, that unless you're naturally inclined towards optimism, you're predestined to be a negative thinker.

The quality of our thinking can maintain or intensify depression. So, while you can't necessarily control how you feel about something, you can control how you think about it. In fact, Cognitive Psychotherapy, a widely used treatment for depression, operates on the premise that we can correct thought-processing errors that contribute to a depressed mood.

According to the Mayo Clinic, positive thinkers enjoy a host of health benefits, including:

  • Longer life span
  • Lower rates of depression, distress and risk of death from cardiovascular disease
  • Greater resistance to colds
  • Better coping skills in the face of challenges
  • Better physiological and psychological well being

Thinking negative thoughts goes hand in hand with negative self-talk. Self-talk is that constant stream of chatter running through our brain while we're awake. Not surprisingly, depressed people tend to engage in regular negative self-talk. They magnify negative aspects of a situation without acknowledging the positive, automatically blame themselves if something bad happens and always anticipate the worst. Depressed individuals generally see things as black and white or good and bad.

If you typically have negative thoughts, experts recommend trying to recognize these thoughts, identify situations that trigger them and then convert negative thoughts to positive ones by flipping the thought around. For example, change, "I'm not going to get any better at this," to "I can do better if I give it another try."

Since positive thinking bestows so many health advantages, it's worth the effort to transform our negative thoughts in to positive ones.