Optimism keeps cortisol levels stable

Regularly using the skill of “realistic optimism” is a key resilience tool.

There are consistent research studies to show that people who remain hopeful, even when things are hard, tend to be happier and healthier than those who don’t. They tend to heal faster after illness or surgery and recover more quickly from difficult life events.

An exciting study published in Health Psychology showed a reliable association between optimism and individuals’ biological stress response.

In this study, people’s stress responses were tracked by measuring cortisol levels (cortisol is one of the hormones released when you view something as stressful and the body’s flight or fight response gets ramped up).

The researchers followed 135 older adults over six years, and collected saliva samples five times a day to monitor cortisol levels. (This age group was selected because older adults often face a number of age-related stressors with increased cortisol levels as a result.) Study participants were asked to report on the level of stress they perceived in their day-to-day lives, and self-identify along a continuum as optimists or pessimists. Each person’s stress levels were then measured against their own average. Since we can get used to the amount of stress in our lives, measuring the stress levels against participants’ own average provided a “real-world” picture of how each person handled stress.

The researchers found that the pessimists in the group had a higher stress baseline than the optimists. Plus the stress response of the pessimists was more elevated, so it took longer for them to bring their cortisol levels back to “normal”. In contrast, the cortisol levels of the optimists was more stable.

Such a strong finding gives us another incentive to practise optimism.

Being optimistic, however, does not mean seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses or blindly “thinking positive”. Optimism means acknowledging that something is difficult, and looking for a way forward at the same time.

What helps you to hold optimism, especially when things are hard?

For the original study see: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2013-16579-001/


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