Optimists live longer, especially to age 85 and beyond, according to a study that tried to weed out the effects of factors like wealth and chronic illness.
If you’re an optimist, you tend to expect good things to happen. You might also be confident that you can make good things happen and avoid bad ones. You say, and believe, maxims like, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
The truth is, although we don’t know what will happen, optimism feels better. It’s also better for our longevity, according to a research team from Boston University, Harvard, and the Boston Veterans Administration.
Their conclusion was based on data for 69,744 women over 10 years, and 1,429 men followed for 30 years. People who gave the most optimistic answers at the beginning of the study lived 11 to 15 percent longer, on average, than the pessimists. They also had greater odds of reaching 85 years old, a 50 percent boost for women and 70 percent for men.
The simple explanation might be that optimistic people are in better economic circumstances, or healthier to begin with. But optimism still tipped the balance even when comparing groups with the same socioeconomic status. The team also found the effect after controlling for chronic illness, depression, smoking, social engagement, poor diet, and alcohol use.
Why optimism helps keep you alive isn’t nailed down. One reason may be that optimists handle stress better, minimizing the wear and tear of emotional upsets on the body. They do tend to have better health habits (although this study found the effect independent of the most obvious ones like smoking and exercise). They have stronger immunity and recover more quickly from heart surgery, for example, and have better survival rates from some cancers.
A pessimist might say, “Well no wonder they’re optimistic; things go better for them than for me.”
But expecting better for yourself could improve your own odds. Many people think an upbeat attitude is entirely hardwired, but actually studies with twins suggest that genes account for only 25 percent of our attitudes. Most traits we deem “genetic” aren’t entirely so. And you can train yourself to be more optimistic.
According to a meta-analysis of existing research, programs in which you imagine your "best possible self" are effective.
One program takes only 15 minutes a week over 8 weeks. In the first week, you’d spend 15 minutes writing about a scenario when within 10 years your romantic life has gone as well as it possibly could. Then the next week, you’d spend 15 minutes contemplating your best possible future educational attainment. Over the following weeks, you’d imagine ideal hobbies or personal interests, family life, career situation, social life, community involvement, and physical and mental health. The positive feelings from this exercise lasted six months, the study found.
Before you go to sleep, write down the especially good events of that day. You can also show gratitude, “counting your blessings” and giving thanks for the ordinary good things. Remember people who have been helpful to you and appreciate them. In the morning, think about what you’d like to accomplish.
If you have a problem to face, don’t spend too much time deciding who to blame. Instead, look for solutions.
It’s important to realize that you can be optimistic without being impractical. The popular maxim by writer William Arthur Ward puts it this way: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” You can adjust the sails — and focus on the positive and your hopes and dreams.
Choose optimistic motivated people to work with and talk to. Bounce ideas off one another. Optimists attract each other, and can create a virtuous circle of support.
December 12, 2019