Do optimistic people sleep better?

Optimism is associated with greater physical and mental health, and one reason why could be linked to its role in promoting better sleep. In a study of 3,548 people, those who were the most optimistic enjoyed higher quality sleep, hinting at the importance of a positive outlook in getting a good night’s rest.1

While the reason why optimism leads to better sleep wasn’t revealed by this study, the researchers, from the University of Illinois, suggested it could be due to buffering the effects of stress, leading to better coping mechanisms. In other words, optimists may spend less time lying in bed with their mind racing, allowing them to drift off easier.

“Optimists are more likely to engage in active problem-focused coping and to interpret stressful events in more positive ways, reducing worry and ruminative thoughts when they’re falling asleep and throughout their sleep cycle,” study author Rosalba Hernandez said in a news release.2

Optimists sleep better

The study began by measuring participants’ level of optimism using a 10-item survey, which included statements such as “I’m always optimistic about my future” and “I hardly expect things to go my way.” Participants then rated how much they agreed with the statements, using a five-point scale.

The participants’ sleep quality and duration was also tracked, using self-reported data, including the number of hours slept at night, difficulty falling asleep and symptoms of insomnia (a subset of participants wore activity monitors to track sleep data).

Optimism was significantly associated with better sleep, with each standard deviation increase in optimism score linked to a 78% increased likelihood of reporting very good sleep quality.3

Those with greater optimism scores were also 74% more likely to have no symptoms of insomnia, had less daytime sleepiness and were more likely to get adequate sleep — sleeping for six to nine hours a night. Hernandez explained in a news release:4

“The lack of healthy sleep is a public health concern, as poor sleep quality is associated with multiple health problems, including higher risks of obesity, hypertension and all-cause mortality. Dispositional optimism — the belief that positive things will occur in the future — has emerged as a psychological asset of particular salience for disease-free survival and superior health.”

Positive personality characteristics linked to better sleep

A number of previous studies have also linked positive personality characteristics, including optimism and self-esteem, with better sleep. In one study of 1,805 adults, ranging in age from 30 to 84 years, those with insomnia symptoms scored lower on measures of optimism and self-esteem.5

Further, those with lower optimism and self-esteem were more likely to sleep for six hours or less each night (defined as short sleep duration) or for more than nine hours each night (long sleep duration).

The relationship between positive personality characteristics and sufficient sleep occurred even after the association between poor sleep and depression was accounted for. Results were similar in a study involving children, which found healthy sleep duration was linked to optimism. The researchers explained:6

“The relation resembled a reverse J-shaped curve, such that children whose sleep duration was in the middle of the distribution scored higher on optimism compared to children who slept relatively little. Further, children with shorter sleep latency scored higher on optimism and tended to have higher scores on self-esteem.”

Another study on college students looked at the relationship of sleep, optimism and mood, revealing “complex relationships” among them. People who tended to be pessimistic also tended to be more anxious and have more symptoms of stress, which had adverse effects on sleep. Poor sleep was, in turn, damaging to optimism, yet, being a morning person seemed to counter some of this damage. 

“In conclusion, optimism and sleep quality were both cause and effect of each other. Depressive mood partially explained the effect of sleep quality on optimism, whereas anxiety and stress symptoms were mechanisms bridging optimism to sleep quality,” according to the study.7

Benefits of optimism beyond sleep

The ability to be optimistic, which is defined as the “generalized expectation that good things will happen”8 is protective against cardiovascular disease (CVD),9 such that it reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes.10 Lead author Julia Boehm noted in a news release that being positive is about more than the absence of negative:11

“The absence of the negative is not the same thing as the presence of the positive. We found that factors such as optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness are associated with reduced risk of CVD regardless of such factors as a person’s age, socioeconomic status, smoking status, or body weight.

For example, the most optimistic individuals had an approximately 50% reduced risk of experiencing an initial cardiovascular event compared to their less optimistic peers.”

Being optimistic is also linked to a longer life span, with increasing levels of optimism associated with lower risk of mortality. In fact, optimism was associated with a lower risk of death from chronic disease, including cancer, heart disease, stroke and respiratory disease, as well as infection.12 Further, optimism is also linked to following health benefits:13

Healthier lipid profile

Lower levels of inflammatory markers

Higher levels of serum antioxidants

Better immune responsiveness

Healthier autonomic function

Higher levels of heart rate variability

Experiencing emotional well-being, positive mood, joy, happiness, vigor, energy and other measures of “positive affect,” along with positive dispositions like life satisfaction, hopefulness, optimism and a sense of humor, is also associated with increased survival in healthy people, including reduced cardiovascular mortality.14

Further, people with diseases, including renal failure and HIV, and positive psychological well-being also had reduced death rates, suggesting once again that happiness may indeed be protective over your physical health.15

You can learn to be more optimistic

It’s thought that a person’s tendency to be optimistic may be partially due to genes (one study suggested optimism is about 25% heritable16), but it’s also possible to become more optimistic. In one example, researchers asked study participants to write about their best possible self for 15 minutes, then use mental imagery of the positive future expectancies for five minutes.

Compared to a control scenario, the positive future thinking manipulation led to a larger increase in positive affect and future expectancies, showing that “imagining a positive future can indeed increase expectancies for a positive future.”17

Another simple optimism intervention is to think of three things you’re looking forward to tomorrow. When you do this regularly, say before bed, it may lead to reduced pessimism and emotional exhaustion.18

Mindfulness is another tool to increase optimism. Practicing “mindfulness” means you’re actively paying attention to the moment you’re in right now. Rather than letting your mind wander, when you’re mindful, you’re living in the moment and letting distracting or negative thoughts pass through your mind without getting caught up in their emotional implications.

One study showed that practicing mindfulness helped workers in high-stress jobs alter their brain activity to be more left-sided (which is associated with positive moods).19 “[M]indfulness meditation produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function,” the researchers noted. “These findings suggest that meditation may change brain and immune function in positive ways.”20 Tips for being mindful include:21

When you’re walking, tune into how your weight shifts and the sensations in the bottom of your feet. Focus less on where you are headed.

Don’t feel that you need to fill up all your time with doing. Take some time to simply be.

When your mind wanders to thinking, gently bring it back to your breath.

Notice how the mind likes to constantly judge. Don’t take it seriously. It’s not who you are.

Practice listening without making judgments.

Notice where you tend to zone out (i.e., driving, emailing or texting, web surfing, feeding the dog, doing dishes, brushing teeth). Practice bringing more awareness to that activity.

Spend time in nature.

The Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), a psychological acupressure technique, is another tool you can use to increase optimism. It’s excellent for working through negative emotions and limiting beliefs that may be stifling your positive outlook on life.

Why sleep issues should be addressed right away

If you’re having trouble sleeping, whether you consider yourself an optimist or not, it’s important to get to the bottom of it sooner rather than later. Lack of sleep is linked to numerous health problems, including depression,22 diabetes, obesity23 and heart problems.

Sleep is even connected with subclinical atherosclerosis, the early stages of hardening and narrowing of the arteries. In one study, those who slept for less than six hours a night were 27% more likely to have subclinical atherosclerosis than those who slept for seven or eight hours a night.24,25

If you have trouble achieving this duration, or you wake frequently during the night, it’s time to take steps to improve your sleep. If you’d describe yourself as a pessimist, making a concerted effort to be more optimistic may help, however you should also pay attention to proper sleep hygiene.

Be sure you’re sleeping in complete darkness, as light (even that from a night light or alarm clock) can disrupt your internal clock and your production of melatonin and serotonin, thereby interfering with your sleep.

In the morning, bright, blue light-rich sunlight signals to your body that it’s time to wake up. At night, as the sun sets, darkness should signal to your body that it’s time to sleep. Keep the temperature cool, between 60 and 68 degrees F, and eliminate electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Ideally, shut down the electricity to your bedroom by pulling your circuit breaker before bed and turning off your Wi-Fi at night.

Other practical solutions include going to bed earlier and considering a separate bedroom if your partner is interfering with your sleep. For more tips, my 33 healthy sleep secrets provides a comprehensive list of strategies for a better night’s rest.

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