The Power of Optimism: Studies Show Optimists Live Longer
Everyone is looking for the Fountain of Youth…and a new study shows it might just be as simple as maintaining an optimistic outlook!
Research has identified many factors that can help decrease the likelihood of diseases and premature death — healthy diet, exercise, no smoking, limited alcohol, minimal stress, etc. However, much less is known about whether positive psychosocial factors can extend healthy aging. It seems like an obvious connection.
If risk factors impact your health negatively, shouldn’t beneficial factors impact your health positively? Yes, they can! And science has shown the positive impact that optimism, gratitude, kindness, and generosity can have on your health. This article explores the science behind the power of optimism.
A new study based on decades of research finds that having an optimistic outlook supports a longer life span. Preliminary findings indicate that optimism could boost our chances of living 85 years or more by over 50%.
Researchers from Boston University’s School of Medicine, the National Center for PTSD at VA Boston Healthcare System, and Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health have found that individuals with greater optimism are more likely to live longer and to achieve “exceptional longevity” — that is, living to age 85 or older.
Scientists combined data from two large, long-term studies: One study focused on 69,744 women and the other study focused on 1,429 men. Both groups completed survey questions to assess their feelings about the future as well as their level of optimism. Their overall health and
habits were also detailed, controlling for variables in diet, exercise, smoking, and alcohol use. The women were followed for 10 years, the men for 30 years.
The study aggregating the data of both study groups was published on August 26, 2019, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
When individuals were compared based on their initial levels of optimism, the researchers found that the most optimistic men and women demonstrated, on average, an 11% – 15% longer life span, and had 50% -70% greater odds of reaching 85 years of age compared to the least optimistic groups. Scientists were able to show that the most optimistic women (top 25%) lived an average of 14.9% longer than their more pessimistic peers, and were 1.5 times more likely to reach 85 years old than the least optimistic women. For the men, the most optimistic of the bunch lived 10.9% longer than their peers, and were 1.7 times more likely to make it to 85 years old. The results were maintained after accounting for age, demographic factors such as educational attainment, chronic diseases, and depression, and health behaviors such as alcohol use, exercise, diet, and primary care visits.
Despite the good news, it’s still unclear how exactly optimism helps people attain longer life. Researchers make the connection that more optimistic people tend to have healthier habits, such as being more likely to engage in exercise and less likely to smoke, which could extend life span.
“While research has identified many risk factors for diseases and premature death, we know relatively less about positive psychosocial factors that can promote healthy aging,” explained corresponding author Lewina Lee, PhD, clinical research psychologist at the National Center for PTSD at VA Boston and assistant professor of psychiatry at BUSM. “This study has strong public health relevance because it suggests that optimism is one such psychosocial asset that has the potential to extend the human lifespan. Interestingly, optimism may be modifiable using relatively simple techniques or therapies,” says Lee.
“Other research suggests that more optimistic people may be able to regulate emotions and behavior as well as bounce back from stressors and difficulties more effectively,” says study senior co-author Laura Kubzansky, PhD, MPH, Lee Kum Kee Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences and co-director, Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“Research on the reason why optimism matters so much remains to be done, but the link between optimism and health is becoming more evident,” said senior author Francine Grodstein, ScD, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and professor of
medicine at the Channing Division of Network Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
“Our study contributes to scientific knowledge on health assets that may protect against mortality risk and promote resilient aging. We hope that our findings will inspire further research on interventions to enhance positive health assets that may improve the public’s health with aging,” added Lee.
So let’s take a step back and unpack exactly what constitutes optimism. For this study, “optimism” refers to a general expectation that good things will happen, or believing that the future will be favorable because we can control important outcomes. Optimism doesn’t mean ignoring life’s stressors, but rather when negative things happen, optimistic people are less likely to blame themselves and more likely to see the obstacle as temporary or even positive. They also believe they have control over their fate, and can create opportunities for good things to happen in the future.
So if optimism contributes to longevity, how do we become optimists? Are you born that way, or can you train your brain to think in that way?
Deepika Chopra, PsyD, is a visual imagery expert and a happiness researcher specializing in evidence-based manifestation and the science behind cultivating joy. He suggests three simple daily practices to increase your optimism:
1. Move to your favorite music: Music and movement are significant ways to increase happiness and optimism. And it’s a great in-the-moment practice. Turn on some music that makes you happy and dance, even if it’s just for 30 seconds.
2. Spend time in nature: Get outside for 20 minutes. That’s it. You don’t even have to be active. You can just sit down in the grass. Contact with nature increases positive mood, and we know that when our mood is improved, our brain also anticipates events more optimistically.
3. Thank yourself: We’re getting so familiar with the idea of gratitude — it’s one of the most researched concepts in mindfulness. But people rarely express thanks for themselves in their gratitude journals. Celebrate your wins, even if they’re super small. Actually, the smaller the better. When we’re celebrating something we’ve achieved, we’re so much more likely to focus on what we want or what good things are up next than on what is not going well.
Now, more than ever, in this New Abnormal World, we need to keep an optimistic outlook on life amidst constant change. There is a lot at stake these days, and the situation changes minute-to-minute. So how do we maintain optimism through 2021?
At OHI we strongly believe in the three gifts of faith, hope, and love. That is why many of our classes focus on optimism. In particular, our mental detoxification class teaches you how to cancel, reframe, and replace negative thoughts with positive ones to facilitate the healing process. The goal is to develop a mindfulness practice for maintaining an optimistic attitude — gratitude, affirmations, visualization, journaling, and living in the present.
We hope you’ll join us at one of our OHI campuses during 2021. Put the power of our community to work for you, and anchor your optimistic mindset. When you accentuate the positive, that sunny, optimistic outlook just might help you live an extra long and happy life!
“Cheer Up! Optimists live longer” by David Shultz, ScienceMag.org, August 26, 2019
“Optimists Live Longer” by Gina DiGravio, The Brink e-newsletter, Boston University, August 26, 2019
“New evidence that optimists live longer”, ScienceDaily, www.ScienceDaily.com/releases, August 26, 2019.
“New study shows optimists may live longer”, by Max Massey and Sarah Acosta, ksat.com, November 9, 2020
“How to Think Like an Optimist,” by Deepika Chopra, PsyD, Goop.com
At Optimum Health Institute, we teach you how to cultivate an optimism outlook to support your extra-long happy life. During your visit, our caring team can help you achieve your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual goals for optimal health. Visit our website at www.optimumhealth.org, and call us at (800) 588-0809 to make your reservation.