• Robb G. Best

Want Better Sleep? Practice Optimism

Welcome back to our Sleep Series, a string of blog posts about the role of sleep in our lives, including the benefits of achieving enough slumber and tips to help make it happen. As life grows increasingly stressful and complicated, it becomes more and more important to perform the necessary steps to take care of yourself, sleep being key among them.

In this current juncture in history, it can be hard to maintain an upbeat attitude. The devastating effects of COVID-19, nationwide economic troubles, and civil unrest, among other factors, can make it very challenging to maintain a glass half full philosophy. However, for those of us able to maintain a more hopeful view, there are distinct benefits.

Past research has demonstrated that optimistic people live longer and are at lower risk for chronic diseases. And now, in a study led by Jakob Weitzer and Eva Schernhammer of the Medical University of Vienna’s Division of Epidemiology, optimists were found to sleep better than pessimists.

In 2017, 1,004 Austrians filled out a survey detailing, among other things, their sleep habits. When Weitzer and Schernhammer analyzed the data, they found that optimistic participants had a 70% lower chance of suffering sleep disorders or insomnia when compared to the pessimists. Why? Well, on one level, it's easier to imagine a negative thinker tossing and turning all night, consumed by fear and doubt.

However, the reasons seem to go deeper than that. “Other studies have shown that optimists take more exercise, smoke less and eat a healthier diet," said Weitzer. "On top of that, they have better strategies for coping with problems and experience less stress in challenging situations. All these factors could contribute to better quality sleep."

To the pessimists among us, this may seem like grounds for, well, despair. However, Weitzer and Schernhammer note that people can train up their optimism muscles with various mental exercises. For instance, there's the "Best Possible Self" method, in which the individual jots down how their best possible life could look in the future. Periodically reflecting on this ideal can help a person set ambitious but realistic personal goals.

“Some people are optimistic by nature, but many of us learn optimism as well. Anyone can learn to be optimistic — the trick is to find purpose in work and life,” Stanford professor Dr. Leah Weiss told NBC news in a 2017 piece on training the brain to be more positive. Experts say the true factor separating optimists and pessimists isn't their situations, or even how they perceive the world around them: it's how they cope.

“Optimists do acknowledge negative events," added Dr. Aparna Iyer, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, "but they are more likely to avoid blaming themselves for the bad outcome, inclined to view the situation as a temporary one and likely to expect further positive events in the future.”

For those struggling to see that glass as half-full, the NBC news article outlines a few strategies for increasing optimism levels:

  • Consciously shifting your thoughts in a more positive direction can have a surprising impact on your outlook.

  • Be mindful about who you spend your time talking to; try to surround yourself with positive voices.

  • Minimize your exposure to the news. The 24 hour news cycle can be overwhelming for anyone. Check in only once or twice a day.

  • Keep a gratitude journal. Write for a few minutes each day about what you're grateful for.

  • Practice mindfulness about what you can and cannot control.

  • Don't be afraid to still acknowledge that the negative exists; it's important to stay anchored to reality. This realism will help you better navigate life, creating more favorable outcomes.

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