practical optimism:

Sue Varma, MD

Practical Optimism: The art, science, and practice of exceptional well-being

Practical Optimism is the fusion of two seemingly opposing ideas that, when combined, can transform lives. In this practice, optimism is all about fostering a mindset that firmly believes in the limitless positive potential within oneself and others. Simultaneously, the practical aspect focuses on mastering key behavioral skills that pave the way for healthy and rational decision-making.

This approach treats Practical Optimism as a learnable and implementable practice, akin to honing any skill like playing a musical instrument, mastering a work skill, learning a language, or excelling in sports. It involves concrete steps that, with time, become second nature. By integrating the two elements, Practical Optimism empowers individuals to navigate life’s challenges with a proactive and constructive approach, ultimately leading to personal growth and success.


As the pioneering medical director and attending psychiatrist at the World Trade Center Mental Health Program, Dr. Sue Varma played a crucial role in directly supporting civilian and first-responder survivors in the aftermath of the tragic 9/11 events. In her interactions with people from various walks of life, she saw the full spectrum of stress and trauma – from devastation and stagnation to remarkable resilience and growth. Witnessing this, she became intrigued by the question: how do some individuals not just survive but thrive despite facing immense challenges? And how can we navigate stress better by taking control of certain aspects of our lives? Dr. Varma made a fascinating discovery through her extensive work with patients and a blend of philosophy, personal experiences, and the latest research in psychology, psychiatry, medicine, and neuroscience. She realized that fostering an optimistic mindset firmly grounded in reality is a crucial foundation for making wise and reasonable decisions. This powerful revelation became the driving force behind her creation of ‘Practical Optimism,’ a transformative program built on eight pillars that aim to unlock a sense of meaning, mastery, and self-acceptance. Through this program, Dr. Varma empowers all of us to lead lives filled with joy, purpose, and resilience.


Optimism goes beyond just having a positive outlook – it brings about better outcomes. Research has revealed that optimists experience more happiness and success and enjoy physical health benefits. From cardiology to immunology, psychology to surgery, optimism is now being explored not only as a sign of better health but also as a means to maintain it! Embracing optimism not only extends our lifespan but also enhances its quality, reduces the risk of illnesses, and accelerates recovery from them. A 2019 study published in PNAS even found that optimism was associated with an 11 percent to 15 percent increase in lifespan, correlated with exceptional longevity. Interestingly, optimism is connected to specific genes, but its advantages don’t solely stem from having a naturally cheerful disposition. The success, health, and prosperity that optimists enjoy are also attributed to specific habits – such as maintaining a better diet, engaging in regular physical activity, and being less likely to smoke – along with psychological resources and coping skills that optimists naturally possess, but which can be learned by the rest of us.

Optimists tend to achieve more success, report higher incomes and job satisfaction, adopt healthier habits, build stronger relationships, and experience greater overall life satisfaction, ultimately leading to increased happiness. However, what if you weren’t naturally inclined toward optimism from birth? That’s OK! Optimists may be born, but Practical Optimists are made.

Why I wrote a book!

Over the years, the people I serve have repeatedly asked me to recommend a book that encapsulates all our work together — covering best practices, stress management, resilience, fostering friendships, promoting positive thinking, dealing with challenges, and achieving personal and professional success. I, too, had sought such wisdom to help my patients and myself during turbulent times. That’s why I set out to create ‘Practical Optimism’ — a comprehensive guide and philosophy to navigate life’s ups and downs. While this book can’t replace therapy, I want to share with you the knowledge, science, and best practices gathered from my twenty years of helping people through trauma and everyday hassles. I see myself as a co-conspirator in your journey to optimal health, relationships, and success. It brings me great joy to help others find pleasure and purpose in their lives in meaningful ways. I believe a physician’s duty extends beyond restoring function; it is to guide patients from dysfunction to optimal living. This book is my offering to you, my friend, the practical optimist, as we work together to create a better world for all of us. I hope you feel the heart and joy poured into its research and writing. If it resonates with you, please share it with others.


How (and When) to Use This Book

Have you ever found yourself wondering:

– “Is there a small change I could make to find more happiness?”
– “What are my goals, and how can I truly achieve them for a fulfilling life?”
– “Some days, it feels like I’m just going through the motions.”
– “It seems like I’m facing one crisis after another. How can I stay steady?”
– “My life is going through a transition and I feel overwhelmed. I need to improve my coping skills.”
– “I want to take action against injustices and suffering in the world, but it’s hard to maintain momentum or even know where to begin.”

If you answered yes to any of the thoughts above, not to worry! The essence of the Practical Optimism program lies in the fact that it’s a skill set we can embrace and refine daily. This book isn’t about magical thinking. Practical optimists possess invaluable qualities – resourcefulness, realism, and thoughtful problem-solving abilities – which empower them to cope during crises and thrive. Packed with self-assessment quizzes and exercises, Practical Optimism becomes our scientific and tangible path to viewing the world more positively and unlocking our true potential. It equips us with the tools to elevate our lives and make a meaningful impact, even in the face of challenges.