Is there a link between optimism and survival?

In Flashes in the Night , a brand new book about the survivors of the 1994 sinking of the ship Estonia, author Jack Nelson writes about the thin line of endurance that can separate life from death.

When the Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea between Estonia and Sweden, only 137 out of 989 passengers survived.  What made the difference between survival and death in that freezing, terrifying place?  Nelson asked that question in interviews with many of the survivors.

The answer was the inner determination and tempered optimism of individuals.

“One factor is determination to make it, and the other is optimism without being overly optimistic,” Nelson said.  With bitter-cold waves washing over them, a voice that survivors identified as Mr. Positive reassured everyone they’d be rescued. Yet, Mr. Positive died after four hours.

“Many people on the Estonia just gave up. Some went into shock, sat down, and waited for their fate. But those who decided they would endure no matter how long it took were more successful at living,” said Nelson.

Interestingly, a 2008 study from the University of Michigan found that optimism played a role in cancer patients’ management of pain and fatigue. Patients who were more optimistic tended to report less severe pain.  And a 2005 study from the University of Miami found that self-reported well-being was a strong predictor of years of survival for the 163 breast cancer patients studied.  (Personality and social connection were also survival prediction factors.)

But in The Longevity Project, a research project and book by Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, optimism was not found to necessarily extend life; Friedman and Martin’s study found key longevity traits (barring accident and disease) to be prudence and persistence.

What do these studies and stories mean, taken together?

I don’t know.

But I like being around the optimists that I know, much better than I like the pessimists, and I like myself better when I am thinking positively.

I love the creed of the International Optimists Club. (Did you know there was an international Optimists Club?)  Their creed is long, but here’s a portion of it:  (to read the whole creed, go to )

  • Promise yourself to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
  • Talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.
  • Think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only   the best.
  • Be as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about  your own.
  • Forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements.
  • Give every living creature  you meet a smile.

One of America’s classic public addresses on optimism was given in 1974 at Brigham Young University by Gordon B. Hinckley, who said:  “I am asking that we look a little deeper for the good, that we still our voices of … sarcasm…  I am not asking that all criticism be silenced… What I am suggesting… is that we turn from the negativism that so permeates our society and look for the remarkable good… that optimism replace pessimism, that our faith exceed our fears.”

The speaker, a great optimist, actually lived to be 97 healthy years old.



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