Most people know if they’re optimists or pessimists, but a study at Concordia University in Montreal reveals how those perspectives happen at a physiological level.
The study tracked 135 adults age 60 and older over a period of six years, collecting saliva samples to monitor levels of cortisol, a hormone that increases when we feel frightened or under pressure. Researchers also asked participants to identify themselves along the optimism/pessimism continuum and to report on their daily stress levels. The goal was to measure stress when both groups were operating outside their norms.
“Many studies group optimists and pessimists together,” says Joelle Jobin, who coauthored the study. “[But] pessimists can find something as routine as weekly shopping to be very stressful.”
The study confirmed that optimists are more effective copers, whereas pessimists tend to see stressors as potentially catastrophic. On days when participants experienced higher than average stress, the pessimists’ stress response was elevated and they had trouble lowering their cortisol levels. “Their system seems to be wired to perceive this higher level of stress,” Jobin says. The optimists, however, seemed to be protected when they experienced more stress.
The study also revealed an unexpected surprise: Optimists had higher levels of morning cortisol than did pessimists, regardless of their current stress levels.
“We related it to people being engaged in their life,” she says. Cortisol, she explains, is a little like blood pressure. Too high, and you may have a heart attack. Too low, you’re likely to faint. “There are points in the day when cortisol rises, and that’s good. It’s how we get things done,” she says. “For optimists, this awakening cortisol seems to be part of their normal curve.”
The takeaway for pessimists: You can learn to lower stress levels with simple reframing techniques. When a situation feels like a disaster, look for positives or ask, “What can I learn from this?”
It worked for Winnie-the-Pooh’s downbeat sidekick Eeyore in A House at Pooh Center by A.A. Milne. After gloomily lamenting that it was snowing, Eeyore brightened slightly, acknowledging that “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”
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