Mind & Body

Optimism May Lead to Better Sleep

You've got a busy day ahead. You know you need to get a good night's sleep, but here you are, stuck in a vicious cycle of lying awake and thinking about how tired you'll be and how badly the day will go as the minutes continue ticking by.

You've read all the recommendations on how to catch more quality Z's: banish screens, turn down your thermostat, go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.

New research published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine suggests adding the sage advice of Monty Python to the list: "Always look on the bright side of life." It turns out that optimists may get more and better sleep.

Hope and Health Go Hand in Hand

About a third of American adults don't sleep enough, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Not getting enough sleep can have serious consequences for your physical and mental health, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and depression, among others. You're also three times as likely to be in a car accident if you're fatigued, according to the National Safety Council. So the importance of sleep and the benefits of getting enough of it are well documented.

Similarly, scientists have found that an optimistic outlook carries major health benefits, like protection from cardiovascular disease and better recovery rates after surgeries like gastric bypass. Optimists are also more likely to follow doctors' orders and make lifestyle changes to reduce future risks, studies have found.

As far as scientists knew, sleep and optimism functioned independently of each other when it came to improving health. No one had studied whether optimism played a role in improving sleep — until now.

Stress Less, Sleep More

To test the link, the team analyzed data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, a project that has been examining the heart health of a diverse selection of young Americans for more than 30 years. For this study, the researchers zoomed in on data from 3,500 participants aged 32 to 51 that was collected during a follow-up visit between 2000 and 2001 and again five years later.

During those visits, participants completed a 10-item survey designed to measure their level of optimism by having them rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like "I'm always optimistic about my future" or "I hardly expect things to go my way." The participants also reported on the quality and duration of their sleep. A smaller group of participants also wore activity monitors for two three-day periods, spaced a year apart, to collect data on the duration of their sleep, how much of their time they spent asleep, and whether they showed any signs of restlessness while sleeping.

It turned out that optimism and sleep were intimately linked. For each increase in standard deviation on the optimism survey, researchers found that people were 78 percent more likely to have had high-quality sleep. These people were also more likely to have gotten enough sleep — that is, from six to nine hours per night.

However, the study's authors say to take the findings with a grain of salt: A tendency toward optimism may have caused participants to reflect and report on their sleep quality through rose-colored glasses. Scientists are still not exactly sure how optimism influences sleep patterns, but they have a hunch that it has to do with how optimists tend to handle stress.

"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," Dr. Rosalba Hernandez, the lead author and a professor of social work at the University of Illinois, said in a press release.

So if you find yourself seeing the glass half empty, it might be worthwhile to reassess your outlook on life. Seeking out the silver-lined clouds may lead you to sweeter dreams.

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You really can learn to be more optimistic. Just take it from renowned positive psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, who tells you how in his book "Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life." The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Steffie Drucker September 6, 2019

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