Are you a glass-half-full type, the sort of person who tends to feel everything works out in the end? Do you find yourself worrying a lot about the future, and the unknowns that lie around the corner?
Optimism is a measure of how positively we regard our daily challenges and how hopefully we look to the future. We have more control over our levels of optimism than many of us think—far from being fixed and static, optimism is a changeable, improvable trait. And it turns out, cultivating some additional optimism may offer another way to improve the quality and the quantity of your sleep.
Optimism linked to better sleep
A new study by researchers at University of Illinois found people who are optimistic are better sleepers. They discovered strong links between optimism and both higher quality sleep and longer sleep amounts, in a study that included young and middle-aged adults. This is some really interesting research, for a number of reasons. The relationship between optimism and sleep hasn’t received a whole lot of attention in scientific study. In this latest inquiry, researchers assessed the link between optimism and sleep over a period of 5 years, so what we’re seeing here is more than a snapshot in time, and suggests a durable link between higher optimism and better nightly rest. In this study, researchers were able to pinpoint a clear association by adjusting for a number of important factors that might affect optimism and sleep, including depressive symptoms, health conditions, socio-demographics such as education, income, employment, marital status, age, gender, and race/ethnicity.
The study included more than 3200 people, ages 32-51, from several cities across the US. What did researchers find? Very prominent links between higher levels of optimism and better sleep, along with more total sleep amounts.
More optimistic people were more likely to report getting enough sleep on a nightly basis, sleeping between 6-9 hours a night. (Remember, individual sleep times vary; this range includes amounts that are likely to be sufficient for most healthy adults.) People with higher levels of optimism had a 74% greater chance of being free of symptoms of insomnia. The people at the higher end of the optimism scale also reported significantly less daytime sleepiness.
Every incremental increase in scientists’ measurements of optimism was linked to a 78% jump in the odds that a person reported having “very good” sleep quality.
This isn’t the first study to explore the relationship between our levels of optimism and how well we sleep. Other research has explored this connection, and discovered higher levels of optimism linked to lower rates of sleep disorders. A 2017 study showed that optimism and sleep have a bi-directional, or back and forth, relationship: each one affects the other, for better and for worse. (That certainly fits will all we know about sleep’s effects on mood and emotional balance, and the influence of mood and mental and emotional states on sleep.) That 2017 study also identified important chronotype differences in the way that optimism and sleep relate to each other. Non-morning types (i.e., most people except for Lions) were vulnerable to having their sleep lead to greater levels of pessimism, suggesting that Lions’ morning-ness delivers some protective effect that buffers them from the damage that sleeping poorly can do to an optimistic outlook. Notably, in this study, the effects of optimism on sleep quality did not vary by chronotype, suggesting that every chronotype, including Lions, can experiences differences in how well they sleep based on mental outlook.
(Do you know what chronotype you are? To find out, take my short quiz at www.chronoquiz.com.)
How does being optimistic help us to sleep better?
The short answer: we’re not exactly sure. But scientists have a number of ideas, informed by the research into optimism’s relationship to sleep and to our mental and physical health and longevity.
First, it’s helpful to set out what we mean when we’re talking about optimism. What is optimism, exactly? It’s a positive outlook, a psychological perspective that displays hopefulness and confidence about future events and outcomes. The more optimistic we are, the more we expect the best out of any given situation, and the more hopeful we are about what lies ahead.
When it comes to optimism’s effects on sleep, the scientists who conducted this latest study(as well as many others) think the answer may lie, in part, in the behaviors and practices that optimistic people use to maintain their positive outlook. People who are more optimistic are more likely to employ constructive problem solving as a coping skill in difficult circumstances, tackling problems directly and actively seeking ways to reduce adversity—a trait that is a hallmark of resilience. They’re more apt to think about stressful situations with a positive, hopeful mindset—which translates to less worry, and less of the ruminating, negative thoughts that affect those people who are less optimistic.
This theory aligns with research that shows an active, two-way relationship between sleeping poorly and the frequency and severity of worrying, intrusive thoughts—essentially, that worry interferes with our ability to sleep, and lack of sleep gets our minds more stuck in “worry mode” (including worry about our ability to sleep itself). It also lines up with research that shows poor sleep is a factor in increasing what’s known as anticipatory anxiety, or anxiety about the future.
More optimistic people also tend to be more likely to engage in health-promoting behaviors, such as regular exercise and healthy eating habits, which can have a deeply positive effect on sleep. There’s an abundant, and growing, body of research that demonstrates the benefits of optimism for health, from strengthening immune function to improving survival rates and outcomes for conditions such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
A large-scale, long-term study released in 2019 found an optimistic outlook linked to major increases in longevity. Being optimistic increases life span by an average of 11-15%, according to the study, and significantly increases our odds of reaching “exceptional longevity”—which means living to age 85 or beyond.
Yes, you can become more optimistic—and sleep better as a result. Here’s how.
All this optimism stuff sounds great, but can you change your own predisposition for optimism, to benefit your health and sleep? Happily, the answer is yes. Individual optimism levels arise from a number of factors: a unique genetic identity that determines a natural, individual resting point for positivity; environmental and circumstantial factors, and habits and practices that cultivate (or inhibit) an optimistic outlook. Scientific estimates vary, but it’s suggested that about 50% of our individual optimism is malleable—able to be changed, cultivated and increased by intentional efforts.
Given what we know about optimism and the role of psychological perspective in relation to sleep, it no surprise that many of the habits and practices that cultivate greater optimism are also ones that encourage better rest. They include:
Regular exercise. Research stretching back decades demonstrates a link between exercise and higher levels of optimism. People who are regularly physically active are significantly more optimistic than their sedentary counterparts. Exercise, as you’ve heard me discuss often, is a great sleep enhancer—and I wrote just recently about the things your personal trainer might not know about sleep.
A healthy, mindful set of eating habits and dietary choices. Research indicates there’s a relationship between dietary quality and levels of optimism.People who are pessimistic are more likely to eat unhealthfully than optimists. I’ve written extensively about how dietary choices—including some of the most popular diets people follow today—can affect sleep. A sugar-heavy diet contributes to depression and other issues with mental health, making it more difficult to achieve a positive, optimistic mindset. And sugar also can seriously undermine your sleep.
Mindfulness practices—including meditation and mind-body exercises. These practices are scientifically shown to give a big boost to sleepand to enhance positive, optimistic thinking. For patients who struggle with worry at night (or any time of day), I recommend using a worry journal as a practice for offloading problems that occupy your mind. It’s a calming habit that can help quiet your mind for sleep, and it also can help you gain the perspective you need to cultivate a more positive, problem-solving mindset.
Engaged relationships and social networks. Meaningful relationships and social support are a cornerstone of happiness, and social networks are as important as diet and exercise to long-term health and longevity, according to research. Finding comfort, love, joy, security, and shared understanding in relationships can reduce stress and provide a buffer against the adversities and challenges of life. Greater social support is also strongly linked to better sleep.
Tending to sleep issues. As the research I’ve discussed here today indicates, the links between optimism and sleep run in both directions. Negative thinking, and a pessimistic mind set, can be exacerbated by poor and insufficient sleep, particularly for certain chronotypes (Wolves and Dolphins and Bears, I’m looking at you all.) Being attentive and responsive to sleep issues—and seeking help from sleep professionals to diagnose and address sleep disorders—can not only improve sleep directly, but also foster more positive thinking, providing an indirect and additional benefit to sleep and quality of life. If you’re looking for a sleep professional in your area, use http://www.sleepcenters.org/.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™