Optimists are better at regulating stress

New research reveals biological effects of positivity
July 24, 2013
By Suzanne Bowness

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Photo by Concordia University

The connection between a “glass half-full” attitude and individuals’ biological response to stress may not come as a surprise, but science has failed to reliably associate the two — until now.

New research from Concordia’s Department of Psychology is deepening the understanding of how optimists and pessimists handle adversity by comparing them not to each other but to themselves. Results show that the “stress hormone” cortisol tends to be more stable in those with more positive personalities.

The study — recently published in the American Psychological Association’s Health Psychology journal — tracked 135 older adults for six years, and involved the collection of five daily saliva samples. The samples were used to monitor cortisol levels. The 60-plus age range was selected because older adults often face a number of related stressors; their cortisol levels have also been shown to increase.

Participants were asked to report on the level of stress they perceived in their day-to-day lives, and identify themselves along a continuum as optimists or pessimists. Each person’s levels were then measured against their personal average.

Using this personal average was key to providing a real-world picture of how individuals respond. “For some people, going to the grocery store on a Saturday morning can be very stressful,” says Joelle Jobin, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology who co-authored the study with her supervisor Carsten Wrosch, a professor in the Department of Psychology, and Michael Scheier from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn. “That’s why we asked people how often they felt stressed or overwhelmed during the day, and compared them to their own averages.” In some cases, individuals become accustomed to the amount they typically experience.

Jobin notes that pessimist participants tended to have a higher baseline than optimists; pessimists also had trouble with the biological regulation of their system when they encountered particularly stressful situations. “On days where they experience higher than average stress, we see that the pessimists’ stress response is very elevated, and they have trouble bringing their cortisol levels back down. Optimists, by contrast, were protected in these circumstances.”

The study generally confirmed the researchers’ hypotheses about the relationship between positivity and stress, but it did unearth one surprising finding: optimists with more stressful lives secreted higher cortisol levels than expected shortly after they awoke. (The hormone peaks at that time, and declines throughout the day.)

Jobin says there are several possible explanations, but also notes that the finding points to the difficulty of classifying complex hormones as “good” or “bad.” “The problem with cortisol is that we call it the ‘stress hormone,’ but it’s also our ‘get up and do things’ hormone, so we may secrete more if we’re engaged and focused on what’s happening.”

Related links:
•    Department of Psychology
•    The Personality, Aging and Health Lab
•    Centre for Research in Human Development 
•    Carsten Wrosch on research@concordia

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