Optimism and Longevity
A recent article showed a connection between being optimistic and living a longer life. Derived from the NPR podcast series “LifeKit,” the article proclaimed in no uncertain terms that if you have a cheery outlook, it can add years to your life to enjoy the fruits of that great attitude.
A recent study from Boston University School of Medicine and the Harvard School of Public Health, published in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” says that, independent of other lifestyle parameters, optimists are more likely to live past age 85 than pessimists. Apparently, it pays to look on the bright side.
And before you start wondering if somewhat negative thinking may doom you to an untimely demise, it turns out that for those who don’t naturally tend toward a sunny mood, these patterns of thinking and behavior can be learned and instituted by anyone.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that optimists are devoid of problems – they (we) have the same issues and challenges that everyone has to deal with. It’s just that the optimists find a way to frame their experiences so they are not unnecessarily painful or difficult, and theoretically that conservation of emotional energy serves as a mechanism for ongoing function and longer life.
The lead author on the study, clinical research psychologist Lewina Lee, said “We wanted to consider… benefits of psychological resources like optimism as possible new targets for promoting healthy aging. The more we know about ways to promote healthy aging the better.”
Previous research has indicated that optimism reduces the risk of depression, heart disease and other chronic diseases. So, it’s reasonable to expect that longevity would also be influenced, and this lengthy study showed just that. Almost 70,000 women were tracked over ten years, plus an additional 30-year study on more than 1,400 men, correcting for lifestyle choices like smoking, diet and alcohol use, to evaluate the connection between positive perspective and length of life.
The results were measurable and significant. The most optimistic men and women lived 11-15% longer than those who were most pessimistic, dramatically increasing the odds of living to 85 or longer. They also seemed to be more likely to handle the stresses of their lives, suggesting that they will also be less likely to suffer from liver and gastrointestinal problems, traditionally related to a negative or unhappy demeanor.
A related study done by psychologist Judith Markowitz of Northeastern University uncovered eight patterns to increase optimism, including noticing and sharing a constructive event each day, writing a gratitude journal and setting daily goals, focusing on our own strengths and productive qualities, self-reframing, practicing mindfulness and doing nice things for others.
Could it really be that easy? Simple, maybe yes, but easy, well, no. Those who do not naturally lean toward a happy worldview will need to examine their beliefs, values and habits, and explore where they can tilt the odds in their favor. Like a muscle, working out your upbeat emotions will build strength and certainty, and the abovementioned tools will surely help those who need them.
Optimists are generally more fun to be around, but now it turns out that they will often be around longer – if that’s what it takes to increase your lifespan, why not try it on and see what happens next.