Can Optimism Give You a Longer Life?

By Katharine Paljug @kpaljug
January 29, 2017

Positive thinking may help you avoid cancer, stroke, and other deadly conditions.

Could thinking positive thoughts help you live longer?

The answer seems to be yes, according to a study released by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Having an optimistic outlook, according to the study’s authors, decreases the likelihood of dying from seven major causes of death, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and infections.

The study, which was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, looked at data gathered from 2004 to 2012 from women in the Nurse’s Health Study, a long-running investigation into women’s health risks that tracks participants’ health via surveys collected every two years. The researchers at Harvard look at the reported levels of optimism of 70,000 women in 2004, then examined data on their mortality and rates of chronic disease from 2006 to 2012.


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To determine the participants’ levels of optimism, the study asked them to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best,” using a five-point scale. The women were then divided into quartiles, with the top 25 percent being the most optimistic and the bottom 25 percent the least optimistic.

The results showed that the most optimistic participants (those in the top quartile) were 30 percent less likely to die of any of the diseases in the study compared to women in the bottom quartile.

The study’s authors noted some limitations; the data only involved women, and the participants were primarily white. However, researchers emphasize that there is no indication that their results cannot be applied to broader populations, including different races, genders, and socioeconomic groups.

If that’s true, the outcome could have a significant impact on public health. In addition to having better overall longevity, the most optimistic participants were also 16 percent less likely to die from cancer, 39 percent less likely to die from a stroke, 38 percent less likely to die due to heart disease, 38 percent less likely to die from respiratory disease, and 52 percent less likely to die of an infection.

The study’s authors recognized that those numbers may be partly due to correlation; previous studies have found that optimistic people tend to have healthier lifestyles, including eating a better diet, feeling less stress, and getting more sleep. Additionally, participants who began the study in better health might have started out more optimistic than their less-healthy counterparts.

However, even after researchers controlled for factors such as race, high blood pressure, physical activity, and diet, women in the top quartile were still healthier and less likely to die from chronic diseases. This may indicate that optimism itself, not just the healthy behavior it encourages, could be responsible for participants’ longer lives.

“While most medical and public health efforts today focus on reducing risk factors for diseases, evidence has been mounting that enhancing psychological resilience may also make a difference,” co-lead author Eric Kim said in a press release.

Improving health outcomes by encouraging optimism could be relatively simple, according to Kim’s co-lead author Kaitlin Hagan. When it comes to positive thinking, small, everyday actions can make a big difference.

“Previous studies have shown that optimism can be altered with relatively uncomplicated and low-cost interventions — even something as simple as having people write down and think about the best possible outcomes for various areas of their lives, such as careers or friendships,” Hagan noted in the press release. “Encouraging use of these interventions could be an innovative way to enhance health in the future.”


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April 02, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN