CHRIS PETERSON WAS TEACHING a class in
abnormal psychology at Virginia Tech when he told his students
to fill out an Attributional Style Questionnaire a carefully
designed test that determines a persons level of optimism
and pessimism. The students also answered questions about their
general health, including how often they went to a doctor.
Peterson followed the health of his students
the following year and discovered that the pessimists had twice
as many infectious diseases and made twice as many trips to the
doctor as the optimists.
Later, Martin Seligman of the University
of Pennsylvania and two of his colleagues, using interviews and
blood tests, found that optimists have better immune activity
than pessimists. Studies by other researchers show the same thing.
Why? One big factor is that Pessimistic individuals,
as Seligman writes, get depressed more easily and more
When a person is depressed, certain brain
hormones become depleted, creating a chain of biochemical events
that end up slowing down the activity of the immune system. For
example, two key players in our immune systems are T cells and
recognize invaders (like viruses) and make more copies of themselves
to kill off the invaders. Pessimists T cells dont
multiply as quickly as optimists, allowing invaders to
get the upper hand.
circulate in the blood and kill whatever they come across that
they identify as foreign (like cancer cells). Pessimists
NK cells can identify foreign entities, but they dont destroy
them as well as the optimists NK cells.
Optimists also look at information in more
depth to find out what they can do about the risk factors. In
a study by Lisa Aspinwall, PhD, at the University of Maryland,
subjects read health-related information on cancer and other
topics. She discovered that optimists spent more time
than pessimists reading the severe risk material and they remembered
more of it.
These are people, says Aspinwall,
who arent sitting around wishing things were different.
They believe in a better outcome, and that whatever measures
they take will help them to heal. In other words, instead
of having their heads in the clouds, optimistic people look.
They do more than look, they seek. They arent afraid to
look into the situation because theyre optimistic.
Thus, for yet another reason, optimists are likely to be healthier.
The best news is what research has shown
repeatedly: Anyone can become more optimistic with effort. And
every effort you make to keep an optimistic attitude will reward
you with a stronger immune system. So youll enjoy better
health. And it is also true that the better your health, the
easier it is to maintain an optimistic outlook.
Become more optimistic.