The Sleep-Boosting Benefits of Optimism
With all of the fear and uncertainty in the news these days, it's an understatement to say that it's hard to look on the bright side of things right now. But research shows optimism is good for your sleep—and your overall health. And it turns out there are a few easy steps you can take to change your outlook.
Here, learn more about the benefits of optimism and how to be more optimistic to improve your sleep and general well-being.
What is optimism, anyway?
Psychologists describe optimism as a generalized expectation that good things will happen. It tends to be a core part of a person's disposition, though it can change over time.
It's important to note the distinction between healthy optimism and "blind optimism," which involves a failure to accurately assess a situation, an unwillingness to take responsibility for actions, and an unwillingness to seek solutions.
Optimists, on the other hand, are grounded in the real world. They size up and face situations accurately and seek solutions for problems. They see their problems as only temporary, not pervasive. And they have faith in their ability to implement solutions, adjust, and heal.
Optimists "play the hero in their own lives, which leads to personal growth and offers a real chance for improving any situation," writes developmental psychologist and author Deborah L. Davis, PhD, in a Psychology Today blog post titled “Optimism Is Your Best Medicine."
Another Psychology Today blogger, Rice University marketing professor Utpal Dholakia, PhD, says that optimists are strategic in their choices. They tend to take charge and figure out ways to solve a problem within their control. They start looking for a new job, for example, if they know they are soon going to be laid off. They use problem-focused coping and try to keep their emotional responses in check when facing an uncontrollable setback such as a serious medical diagnosis.
Dholakia also says that optimists focus more on the positive aspects of what anyone would consider a bad situation, even when it affects them directly, such as pain after an injury or fear after a layoff. By focusing on the positive aspects, optimists try to make sense of what has occurred and form an understanding of why it happened. Giving less attention to the negative aspects of the experience allows for personal growth.
The health—and sleep—benefits of optimism
A 2019 study finds optimists have as much as a 15% longer life span than pessimists and higher odds of achieving “exceptional longevity"—that is, living to 85 or older.
Another study, reported in Behavioral Medicine, shows a relationship between higher optimism and sleep duration and quality. Assessing 3,548 adults across the U.S., ages 32-51, the University of Illinois researchers found that more optimistic people reported getting whatever they considered enough sleep, between six and nine hours a night. They were 74% less likely to have insomnia. Those at the high end of the optimism scale were also much less likely to report daytime sleepiness.
Meanwhile, a 2017 study—the first to examine the complex relationship among sleep quality, optimism, and mood symptoms in a group of college students—reveals that optimism and sleep quality affect each other, back and forth. In a vicious cycle, poor sleep can undermine optimism and lead to anxiety and stress, while the depression that often goes along with pessimism can lead to poor sleep.
How to be more optimistic and improve your sleep
A study of 500 pairs of twins finds that only about 25% of an individual's optimism is genetic or “heritable." This means that three-quarters of optimism is shaped by your environment and your own efforts to become more optimistic.
A simple, powerful exercise for boosting your optimism is to visualize your “best possible self." It encourages you to visualize your ideal future life. “When you have at least 10 minutes of free time or more," says Dholakia, “envision yourself in a future that has turned out to be the rosiest that is possible (and feasible). It may help to pick a particular time-point in the future, say 10 years from now."
He continues, “In this future, you have reached all the goals you had set for yourself, you have climbed the pinnacle of your dream career, you have found the soul-mate and love of your life, you are in peak physical shape, you have friends who are trustworthy and caring, and so on. You get the picture. Visualize what such a future will be like and feel like to you in as much detail as possible."
What Dholakia describes as an “active and targeted form of daydreaming" has been shown to yield impressive benefits—including increased happiness, less physical pain (because of paying less attention to it), a more positive mood, and greater optimism.
Healthy eating habits and regular exercise contribute to greater optimism—and vice versa, just as what you eat and your level of physical activity (or non-activity) also independently affect your sleep. Healthy, engaged relationships and supportive social networks also are pillars of optimism.
In an interview with Saatva, Paige Rechtman, New York City psychotherapist specializing in treating young professionals experiencing anxiety, says that becoming more optimistic starts with gratitude. “Sometimes when a person is in a funk," she explains, “it can be difficult to be grateful for things in our lives, and then we feel guilty for not being able to practice gratitude in a genuine way."
Start with the small things, says Rechtman: “I start with my senses. The feeling of the sun on my skin; the moment my thirst is quenched after taking a gulp of water; noticing the beautiful colors and layers in a flower; and being grateful that you can see."
If you tend toward the pessimistic side, try counting your blessings instead of counting sheep the next time you can't fall asleep. It will make you more optimistic—and give you better sleep.
Finding it difficult to stop your mind from racing before bed? Here are 10 nighttime activities to help you relax.