Optimism may lead to better sleep


Photo courtesy of Rosalba Hernandez

Rosalba Hernandez, professor in Social Work, recently worked on a study that investigated the correlation between being optimistic and sleep levels. Hernandez found other factors are linked to sleep quality in addition to optimism.

By Rebecca Wood, Contributing Writer

After four years of attending the University, senior in LAS Kathryn Lenz says she still sleeps better at home in Chicago than on campus. A recent study led by a University professor investigated if there is a positive correlation between being more optimistic and getting better quality sleep.

“When I’m at school, I always feel like I could be doing something else, like homework or studying, instead of sleeping,” Lenz said. “At home, I don’t have that pressing issue weighing on my mind.”

Rosalba Hernandez, professor in Social Work and leader of the study, and her research team found evidence to suggest more optimistic people were reporting better sleep quality.

However, because the study is mainly observational, it is difficult to know for certain the correlation, Hernandez said.

The study tested participants across the Midwest region to assess the correlation between optimism levels and sleep quality.

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“My research really focuses on the influence of positive emotion, what we call psychological well-being, and health in general,” Hernandez said.

Optimism levels were calculated based on a six-item survey called the Life Orientation Test-Revised, which has been traditionally used as a valid and reliable method to calculate emotion levels, according to Hernandez.

The study found as each reported standard deviation in optimism score increased, participants’ were 78 % more likely to report better sleep quality.

However, Hernandez warns the results do not prove a direct correlation with optimism to sleep quality, though it is a likely mechanism. She says there could be multiple pathways additionally correlated.

“One is that people who are more optimistic tend to cope better with stress, and therefore, when they go to sleep, they’re able to sleep better and not think about stressors in their lives,” Hernandez said.

She says another possible mechanism is through health behaviors, with research showing positive emotions can cause engagement in physical activity and a healthier diet.

“The other is just physiological,” Hernandez said. “Somehow, optimism is able to better regulate hormones and things related to sleep.”

Lauren Engelhard, senior in LAS, said she finds it difficult to determine what impacts her sleep levels at school because there are a variety of factors.

“I’m so exhausted from classes, social activities and other obligations, so I might fall asleep faster,” she said. “However, I also stay up later, go to sleep at different times and drink more.”

Engelhard said she thinks the less sleep she receives, the less optimistic she will feel on a daily basis.

Hernandez said some do believe sleeping well makes you happier and can lead to more positive emotions. She said research shows people who sleep better tend to have decreased cases of chronic diseases, decreased risks of high blood pressure, decreased cases of diabetes and increased longevity.

The study found with just one standard deviation higher, optimism scores related to better-reported sleep quality across five years, relative to those with persistently low sleep quality.

Hernandez’s previous research has dealt primarily with optimism levels impacting various aspects of health looking at cardiovascular issues, hypertension, kidney dysfunction and hemodialysis. She also has studied how to best intervene and create a resolution to this issue.

Hernandez said research has shown there are eight particular techniques found to increase positive emotion.

“It’s not something you are born with, something can be done,” she said.

Some of the techniques include identifying three good things that happened on a daily basis before going to sleep, expressing gratitude to family and friends, mindfulness or engaging in the present moment and participating in meditation, according to Hernandez.

Engelhard said she makes an effort to increase her levels of optimism in college through regulating her sleep patterns, frequent exercise and healthy meals.

“I work to find a balance between classes, schoolwork, working, my social life and other things that I enjoy,” she said.

Lenz says she attempts to increase her optimism levels at school by talking regularly on the phone with family or friends to remind herself there is a bigger world outside of her stressful environment.

Hernandez says students should be mindful about how sleep quality heavily impacts behavior and functioning at high academic performance.

“The ultimate goal when looking at psychological impact is to look at overall health and longevity,” Hernandez said. “So our reason behind looking at sleep is maybe sleep is the link or one of the links between emotion and health.”

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