Being Optimistic Really Can Lead To Better Mental Health, A New Study Says

by JR Thorpe
Hannah Burton/Bustle

How would you rate your mood right now? It's an interesting question, and depends on a lot of different factors, from the obvious (going through a lot of stress at work) to the less obvious (being really invested in finding out what will happen on This Is Us). And a new study published in the Journal of Health & Social Behavior has found something interesting about the ways in which we view our own mental health: it turns out that being optimistic can actually affect how well we cope with mental health issues in the future.

It's pretty easy to check how you're feeling about your mental health at any given moment, from checking in with yourself mindfully, to using online assessments to gauge what's going on. Places like the Mental Health Foundation have quizzes that ask you to answer how you feel about statements like "I"ve been feeling optimistic about the future" and "I've been feeling useful". The survey used by the scientists behind the new study was part of something called the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, which asks families and individuals about many different aspects of their health. The researchers picked out 2,547 people who identified that they had a mental health issue, and then looked at how they'd answered questions about their own mental health and how they were feeling.

The results were very interesting. 62 percent of the people who'd said they had a mental health disorder rated their own mental health as "good." When the researchers went back to check on everybody one year later, that group was 30 percent less likely than people who'd rated their mental health as "poor" to have a mental health problem. And that trend held true even if the "good" mental health group hadn't had any treatment for their symptoms.

So why does this matter? Well, it's an interesting signal that the way we feel about our brains may have a tangible effect on how we cope with things. The idea of self-rated mental health itself is often seen as a bit unreliable, even in the face of studies like one in 2015 that revealed our feelings about our mental health are hugely important for our health in general. Generally, some scientists argue, we're not that great at assessing our own health, physical or mental, and tend to make a lot of mistakes when we're asked about it in studies. A lot of different factors also affect how we feel about our own mental health. A 2016 study revealed that race was a factor, with Hispanic Americans far less likely than African-Americans to say that they were only in fair or poor mental health. But the new study wants to highlight that even if people aren't technically doing "great," how they say they're feeling is pretty important.

Anybody who says they're OK even in the face of diagnosis of mental health issues may be greeted with suspicion. They're often accused of denial or of avoiding confronting the problem's seriousness. But this study seems to indicate otherwise. "Positive ratings of mental health even in the face of symptoms might not be a result of denial," study author Dr. Sirry Alang tells Bustle, "but may offer valuable insights about a person’s ability to cope with their symptoms.” The study itself notes that people can be afraid to say that their mental health is "poor" because of self-esteem or worries about judgement.

But the researchers add that there are a lot of things that can make people feel good about their mental health. "Achieving a sense of meaning or purpose in life, being involved in the community, and having supportive relationships are all parts of the recovery process," they write. Maybe they say they're feeling good because they know they're resilient, and can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe they're hopeful about treatment. Maybe they know they've got support. It all adds up.

Of course, it's important to acknowledge that not everyone might want to feel optimistic about their mental health, and that's OK. Positive thinking is not a cure-all, and definitely not a substitute for therapy or other treatment coordinated with your physician. Additionally, this study only looked at results after a year, so it isn't a conclusive argument that optimism can be helpful in the long term. However, it does make a pretty compelling point about why it's important to check in with yourself about how you're feeling. If you've got a mental health issue, keep an eye on how you're feeling about it. Optimism might be part of feeling better down the road.