Can Optimism Increase Longevity?

There is considerable research correlating optimism with better health. But is there evidence that a sunnier outlook can actually add years to your life?

A recent epidemiological paper by Boston University and Harvard examined public health data from two cohorts: women from the Nurses’ Health Study and men from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study. The researchers found a significant connection between optimism and longer life. Their results “suggest that optimism is specifically related to 11 to 15 percent longer life span, on average, and to greater odds of achieving ‘exceptional longevity’ that is, living to the age of 85 or beyond.”

Of course correlation doe not prove causation. But this study, plus prior research on the good effect of optimism on health, does indicate there is something important going on. Some experts speculate that optimistic people just take better care of themselves. That they somehow handle stress better. Or that they can better bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks. In any case we know that ongoing attitude, positive or negative, does have a a profound impact on physical well being.

What exactly is optimism? The Boston researchers cited above define it this way: it’s “a psychological attribute characterized as the general expectation that good things will happen, or the belief that the future will be favorable because one can control important outcomes.” That’s a good definition, but it begs the question: is a positive outlook an innate personality trait, something you’re born with? Or is it something that can be developed — even if you’re ordinarily a pessimistic person?

Clinical psychologist Josh Kaplow says it’s not a matter of talking oneself into being happy. “We can be sad and hopeful; we can be sad and look towards a better future. It’s those things that have protective factors for us.” Here are some suggestions for cultivating a positive attitude:

  • Maintain a gratitude practice. Keep a daily journal, noting a some things to feel grateful about. This could be good health, a loving partner or even something modest like nice weather.
  • Acknowledge positive events during the day. In your gratitude journal remember the good things that happened. Maybe your boss told you you did a good job. Or you had a satisfying conversation with a friend. Or just that your job and chores went smoothly that day.
  • Come to terms with your past. Maybe some things have happened that were not optimal. But the past is past and to keep recalling it takes energy (and enjoyment) away from the here and now.
  • Visualize your best possible future. Regularly and in detail imagine a future in which things go well and in which you’re making progress with life goals.
  • Practice happiness. Enjoy those things that bring genuine joy and contentment to your live: helping others, meditation, exercise, nature, creativity, etc.
  • Surround yourself with positive people. Hanging out with positive and supportive friends and relatives can help bring out the optimism in you.
  • Finally, don’t make mountains out of molehills. Put things in perspective. Perhaps small obstacles in life aren’t that serious.

Consider that optimism is a choice. Make every day an opportunity to shift your outlook to the positive.

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