You’ve reached content that’s exclusive to AARP members.

To continue, you’ll need to become an AARP member. Join now, and you’ll have access to all the great content and features in Staying Sharp, plus more AARP member benefits.


Already a member?

Want to read more? Create an account on

A healthy lifestyle helps protect the brain. Make brain health a habit and register on to access Staying Sharp.

Login to Unlock Access

Not Registered?

How Optimism May Fight Stress

Seeing the glass half full has benefits, study finds


Add to My Favorites
My Favorites page is currently unavailable.

Add to My Favorites

Added to My Favorites


Very few people make it to midlife without knowing whether they are optimists or pessimists. For one thing, pessimists usually feel outnumbered: Humans are notoriously upbeat, with the majority falling into the optimists’ camp. And for another, the Eeyores of the world tend to be more stressed out, responding to even minor setbacks as potential calamities.

Researchers at Concordia University in Montreal are learning just how that happens, at a physiological level. The study tracked 135 adults age 60 and older over a period of six years, collecting saliva samples five times a day across 12 days to monitor levels of cortisol, a hormone that increases when we feel frightened or under pressure. It also asked participants to identify themselves along the optimism/pessimism continuum, and to report on their daily stress levels. This study is exceptional in that instead of comparing the stress levels of optimists versus pessimists, it compared cortisol levels based on their own individual averages. Researchers asked participants to report on their perceived levels of stress and each person’s cortisol levels were then measured against how stressed they reported feeling.

“Many studies group optimists and pessimists together,” says Joelle Jobin, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the time, who coauthored the study. “But optimists in general perceive life as less stressful. So when they run into issues or setbacks, they see them as little things. They don’t see them as likely to determine the course of their life, the way pessimists do. And pessimists can find something as routine as weekly shopping to be very stressful.” The goal was to measure stress when both groups were operating outside their norms.

The study, indeed, confirmed that optimists are more effective copers, she says, whereas pessimists tend to see stressors as potentially catastrophic. The researchers found that on days when participants experienced higher than average stress, the pessimists’ stress response was elevated and they had trouble bringing their cortisol levels back down. “Their system seems to be wired to perceive this higher level of stress,” Jobin says. The optimists, however, did not have the same response and seemed to be protected when they experienced more stress.

But the study turned up an unexpected surprise, as well: Optimists consistently had higher levels of morning cortisol than did pessimists, regardless of their current stress levels. “We related it to people being engaged in their life,” she says. “While too much cortisol has been linked to many health problems, including heart disease, there are points in the day when cortisol rises, and that’s good. It’s how we get things done.”

Cortisol, she explains, is a little like blood pressure. Too high, and you may have a heart attack. Too low, you’re likely to faint. “For optimists, this awakening cortisol seems to be part of their normal curve.”

Up Next

Added to Favorites

Favorite removed

Added to Favorites

Favorite removed

Added to Favorites

Favorite removed