In the mid-1980s, 120 men from San Francisco had their first heart attacks, and they served as the untreated control group in the massive Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial. This study disappointed many psychologists and cardiologists by ultimately finding no effect on cardiovascular disease by training to change these men’s personalities from type A (aggressive, time urgent, and hostile) to type B (easygoing).
The 120 untreated control group, however, was of great interest to Gregory Buchanan, then a graduate student at Penn, and to me because so much was known about their first heart attacks: extent of damage to the heart, blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass, and lifestyle — all the traditional risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In addition, the men were all interviewed about their lives: family, job, and hobbies. We took every single “because” statement from each of their videotaped interviews and coded it for optimism and pessimism (determining their explanatory style).
Within eight and a half years, half the men had died of a second heart attack, and we opened the sealed envelope. Could we predict who would have a second heart attack? None of the usual risk factors predicted death — not blood pressure, not cholesterol, not even how extensive the damage from the first heart attack. Only optimism, eight and a half years earlier, predicted a second heart attack: Of the sixteen most pessimistic men, fifteen died; of the sixteen most optimistic men, only five died.
This finding has been repeatedly confirmed in larger studies of cardiovascular disease, using varied measures of optimism.
There are two important things to know about this study. First, the definitions of "optimism" and "pessimism" are very carefully defined. It has to do with "explanatory style" — that is, how you habitually explain events to yourself. Read more about that here.
And second, optimism can be learned, and it doesn't take very long (here's how). An improved explanatory style not only helps your health, it makes you feel better. It improves your mood.
Find out what your explanatory style is (so you can concentrate your efforts at fixing any specific weakness) by clicking here. Look in Questionnaires near the top of the page for "Optimism Test" and take the questionnaire. And then begin using this technique to plug the hole(s) in your bucket. It will benefit you for the rest of your life (which may be a long one).
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.