A new study reports that the more you stay positive and happy in life, the better chance you have of avoiding a brain stroke. To date, various studies have found more optimistic people have a healthier immune system, faster wound healing, a lower risk of heart disease and other benefits already. So don’t worry, be happy.

Eric Kim, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, found a significant association between positivity and stroke risk in particular. Kim and his colleagues looked at data from the Health and Retirement Study. This is a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults over the age of 50. The team then looked at the results of standard optimism tests for 6,044 men and women. All were free of stroke at the study’s start. The optimism score was on a 16-point scale. The participants self-rated their health, and the team followed them for two years. During the follow-up period, 88 cases of stroke occurred.

After adjusting for age, each unit increase in their optimism score reduced stroke risk about 9%. Not impressed? Every little bit counts.

Positive thinking often starts with self-talk. Self-talk is the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head every day. These automatic thoughts can be positive or negative. Some of your self-talk comes from logic and reason. Other self-talk may arise from misconceptions that you create because of lack of information.

One explanation for this improvement is that those who expect the best things in life take steps to promote their health. Another possibility is a biological effect. Clinical depression also impacts physical health of patients, so why not the opposite effect?

Kim says:

“In a similar way that depression can impact functioning, we think optimism can as well. Optimism isn’t just the lack of anxiety or depression. Someone who seeks help for either anxiety or depression might be lifted from a negative 10 or so on a scale back to zero, or neutral. Optimism can bring you back to positive numbers.”

Other similar research has been performed, and in Finland scientists found a link between low pessimism and reduced risk of stroke, but not between optimism and stroke. Kim hopes to continue his research, including a focus on what drives the link between optimism and reduced risk of stroke.

Dr. Martin Seligman, long-time optimism researcher, calls the new finding ”a major new discovery.”

He continues:

“Since optimism is teachable, this implies that a trial that teaches optimism to pessimists at risk for stroke might be of real benefit to public health.”

If you want to become more optimistic and engage in more positive thinking, first identify areas of your life that you typically think negatively about, whether it’s work, your daily commute or a relationship, for example. You can start small by focusing on one area to approach in a more positive way.

If you tend to have a negative outlook, don’t expect to become an optimist overnight. But with practice, eventually your self-talk will contain less self-criticism and more self-acceptance. You may also become less critical of the world around you. Plus, when you share your positive mood and positive experience, both you and those around you enjoy an emotional boost.

Practicing positive self-talk will improve your outlook. When your state of mind is generally optimistic, you’re able to handle everyday stress in a more constructive way. That ability may contribute to the widely observed health benefits of positive thinking.

Sources: The Journal of The American Stroke Association and The Mayo Clinic

Written by Sy Kraft