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Why it pays to boost your optimism and how to do it

  • Health

Are you a cup half full or half empty kind of person?

I am by nature a worry wart. I sometimes need to ‘flick the switch’ and be more optimistic, to look on the lighter side of life. I’m grateful for the practice of laughter yoga in my life.

All the more so after reading research coming out of the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute this past week that has confirmed your outlook can make a real difference to your health.

A genetic set point

Science showed decades ago that we have a genetic disposition when it comes to our happiness lens of the world.

In my science of happiness studies, I learned from experimental psychologist Sonja Lyubomirksy that every individual is born with a ‘set point’ or baseline level of happiness.

After experiencing triumphs or tragedies, people adapt to their new circumstances and their emotions generally return to this genetically-determined level of ‘happiness’.

Thankfully our genetics make up only a portion—not more than 50%—of our disposition to be optimistic or pessimistic. Life circumstances play a part too, but there’s still much we can do to ‘look on the bright side’.

Dr John Whitfield’s findings are the latest to encourage some positive action if you’re a little more Eyeore than Pooh Bear.

Pessimism can cut years from your life

Whitefield, a researcher in QIMR Berghofer’s Genetic Epidemiology Group, found that people who are strongly pessimistic about the future are at a greater risk of dying earlier than those who are pessimists.

Using data from almost 3000 participants of a Life Orientation Test questionnaire that looked at the health of Australians aged over 50 between 1993 and 1995, Whitfield’s research team crosschecked October 2017 Australian National Death Index data, revealing more than 1000 participants had died and the cause of death.

“We found people who were more strongly pessimistic about the future were more likely to die earlier from cardiovascular disease and other causes of death, but not from cancer,” Whitfield said.

The research found no significant differences in optimism or pessimism between men and women.

It found an individual’s level of either optimism or pessimism increased with age.

“Understanding that our long-term health can be influenced by whether we’re a cup half-full or half-empty kind of person might be the prompt we need to try and change the way we face the world and try to reduce negativity, even in really difficult circumstances,” Whitfield said.

Ways to view life more brightly

The reality is there are times when life sucks. It’s not always sunshine and roses. But shift  happens when we put into play techniques to reset our attitudes and reactions and approach challenges differently.

Laughter yoga is one such practice. I liken it to flicking a positivity switch, teaching me to take life less seriously and be more accepting when facing less than great circumstances.

In my facilitated laughter wellbeing sessions, and in my everyday, I also draw on techniques learned through the ‘University of Life’ and my studies with University of California – Berkeley’s  Greater Good Science Centre.

Laughter yoga aside, my favourite other techniques are:

  • Count your blessings. Keep a gratitude journal (or as I do, a gratitude jar) and spend 5 to 10 minutes daily writing about 3 things that went well during the day, big or small. A 2005 study led by Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, found that completing this exercise every day for one week led to increases in happiness that persisted for six months.
  • Seek out and spend time with positive friends who’ll help lift you and your thinking
  • Carry out random acts of kindness. You lift others and feel good doing it.
  • Tune out on the news. Yes we need to be abreast of what’s happening in the world but if the repetition of bad things draws you down, turn it off or play a form of ‘apocalyptic BINGO’, acknowledging that journalism today feasts on hyperbole and sensationalism.


If you’ve not given laughter yoga a try, there are online and in-person community sessions. Here’s the link to Queensland ‘laughter clubs’ (including mine in the Brisbane suburb of The Gap). Elsewhere in Australia, check out this webpage.

Interestingly QIMR’s research also found that being overly optimistic doesn’t translate to a greater than average life expectancy. But odds are, you’ll enjoy a less stressful, more positive existence.

(c) 2020 Heather Joy Campbell

Founder of The Happydemic HeatherJoy Campbell is a certified laughter yoga teacher/trainer based in Brisbane, Australia. She hosts The Gap Laughter Club as a community service. Her ‘day job’ involves delivering laughter wellbeing sessions for workplaces, aged care, and community groups, online and in-person, spreading wellbeing through laughter seriously—with good dollops of gratitude, kindness, and playfulness.