You already know that it’s important to eat your leafy veggies and blueberries, rich in antioxidants. But did you know that hope is the ultimate superfood?
A superfood is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.” Hope offers emotional nourishment that improves emotional and physical health and lengthens life. Numerous research studies have demonstrated the health benefits of an optimistic outlook. Dr. David Snowdon found that positive emotional content in essays written during young adulthood predicted lifespan—those who had a more positive outlook lived 6.9 years longer than their pessimistic counterparts. Similarly, other research has shown that optimism is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and lower death rates.
Hopelessness is the emotional equivalent of artery-clogging trans fats. Research has shown that hopelessness predictor of suicide for those with psychiatric disorders, and that pessimists are at a greater risk for cardiovascular disease. Hopelessness can be life threatening.
The good news is that hope can be cultivated, bringing relief from depression and improving physical health. For example, a study of highly pessimistic college students found that a randomly assigned experimental group that learned strategies to increase their optimism experienced significantly fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety and had fewer illnesses and medical visits compared to the control group. Furthermore, positive emotional style is associated with decreased inflammation—specifically lower levels of interluekin-6, a protein that causes inflammation. Thus, hope-developing practices are a core part of an anti-inflammatory “diet” for well-being.
You’ve heard about the apple, but did you know that a thank you note a day can also keep the doctor away? Father of Positive Psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, demonstrated the lasting benefits of the gratitude letter. To increase your optimism, write a meaningful letter of thanks to someone who has positively impacted your life and read it aloud to this person.
Another strategy designed by Dr. Seligman for increasing hope is to keep a journal of What Went Well. Each day, no matter how difficult, make note of three positives. For each item, consider what caused these positive occurrences. In particular, notice when your actions improved your day. Paying attention to the positives on a day-to-day basis will help you to see what’s in your hall-full glass.
Being hopeful doesn’t mean that you overlook life’s hardships or just plaster on a smile. Optimism involves acknowledging challenges, while orienting to the available resources to handle difficulties. Cultivate optimism to be at your best when facing stress.
At the dinner table, my family members enjoy a balanced emotional meal. Each of us share “2 roses and 1 thorn” to describe the day. The thorn is a difficult experience, but when we discuss thorns, the cuts are soothed by the support we offer each other, adding to the two roses, the positives of the day. Serve that up with a friend or family member for a meal rich in the ultimate superfood: hope.
**For more about cultivating hope and other emotional superfoods supportive of well-being, see Dr. Seligman’s new book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. He reviews the evolution of his Well-Being Theory and its remarkable application in education, health care, and military resilience.