If you’re an optimist, here’s some news that will undoubtedly motivate you to stay that way: A new study has found that people who are optimistic tend to live longer than those who are pessimistic.
They’re significantly more likely to live past the age of 85.
This isn’t the first study to link optimism with better health outcomes. Previous research has linked a more positive outlook on life with a lower risk of developing several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease. That association existed even after accounting for other psychological factors, such as depression and anxiety.
Optimism has also been linked in previous studies to a lower risk of early death. This new study, however, suggests that optimism may also help extend life into very old age.
“A lot of evidence suggests that exceptional longevity is usually accompanied by a longer span of good health and living without disability, so our findings raise an exciting possibility that we may be able to promote healthy and resilient aging by cultivating psychosocial assets such as optimism,” said Lewina Lee, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University, in an interview with Guardian reporter Nicola Davis.
Other studies have suggested that optimism levels can be learned, she added.
These findings shouldn’t be interpreted, however, as meaning that positive thinking can cure diseases — or that people bring on their medical problems because of too many “negative” thoughts. Such ideas are not only unsupported by any scientific evidence, they are also cruel (as Barbara Ehrenreich powerfully explains in her book “Smile or Die”).
How the study was done
The current study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), analyzed data collected from 69,744 women enrolled in the long-running Nurses’ Health Study and 1,429 men enrolled in the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study. In addition to information about the participants’ overall health and health habits (such as smoking, diet, physical activity and alcohol use), the database included information from optimism assessments taken of the men in 1986 and of the women in 2004.
The women were followed for 10 years after the assessments, through 2014; the men were followed for 30, through 2016. During those periods, 13 percent of the women and 71 percent of the men died. The researchers then looked to see if the scores on the earlier optimism evaluations were linked to the participants’ lifespans.
They found that the most optimistic men and women lived, on average, 11 to 15 percent longer than those who were the least optimistic. In addition, they had a 50 to 70 percent greater chance of reaching age 85.
Those results held after accounting for other factors that can influence lifespan, such as age, chronic illnesses (like heart disease and type 2 diabetes), depression, educational attainment, alcohol use, diet and how often people had primary care checkups.
The study wasn’t designed to figure out why optimism might help people live longer. But, as Laura Kubzansky, the study’s senior author and a professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard University, notes in a released statement, “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.”
Limitations and implications
The study is observational, and therefore doesn’t prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship between an optimistic attitude and longer life. Other factors — ones not accounted for in the study — may also explain the results.
Also, the optimism levels of the participants were determined with a questionnaire that was administered only once during the study. Using other assessment tools — or doing the assessment more than once — might have led to different results.
Still, “given research showing that increasing health span often accompanies increasing life span, our findings suggest optimism may be an important psychosocial resource in promoting healthy aging,” say the study’s authors.
“Such findings add to the arsenal of potentially modifiable factors that should be targeted to improve population health and longevity,” they add.
Modifying our personal level of optimism may be easier said then done, however. As an anonymous reviewer of the study for Great Britain’s National Health Service’s website “Behind the Headlines” notes, optimism is influenced by “both your inherent nature and your life circumstances.”
“It’s not always easy to change your outlook,” the reviewer adds.
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the PNAS website, but the full study is behind a paywall. For information on things you can do to help yourself be more resilient to life’s ups and downs and, perhaps, develop a more optimistic attitude, check out the “how to be happier” tips on the NHS’ wellness website.