The Glass Half-Full Approach to a Longer Life
If you’re a person who thinks a rainy day is good for the flowers, instead of dreary, you could be adding years to your life. If you’re someone who thinks you’ll soon be feeling bright and lively when you’re down with a fever, instead of looking up all the deadly viruses you might have contracted, you have a good chance of living to 85 or older.
That’s because a new study found that optimism may contribute to longevity. Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that “optimism is specifically related to an 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.”
The results published in the journal PNAS show that the improved longevity is not related to socioeconomic status, health conditions, depression, social interaction or even health behaviors such as smoking, diet or alcohol use.
How Optimism Can Improve Health
The most obvious reason to adopt an optimistic attitude is to help keep depression at bay. The negative effects of depression such as not eating a healthy diet, avoiding physical activity and becoming isolated contribute to poor health.
The researchers speculate that just expecting the best to happen might make people more motivated to make good choices, especially about health. People with a positive outlook might refrain from smoking, choose healthier foods and exercise more regularly.
In a report from Harvard Medical School, a study of more than 300 patients who had coronary artery bypass surgery found that optimists were half as likely as pessimists to have to return to the hospital.
In as separate study of 300 angioplasty patients, pessimists were three times more likely than optimists to have a heart attack or require repeat angioplasties or bypass operations.
Optimism Can Be Learned
Even people who tend to be gloomy and expect the worst can develop a sunnier outlook on life, according to Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“We can begin to uncover systems of beliefs and assumptions people are making about themselves and their lives and we can begin to change those,” said Dattilo.
When a negative outlook shows up, a person can consciously learn to shift to a more positive perspective.
5 Tips to Increase Optimism
Optimism is not the same as happiness. Life is going to bring challenges and hard times. The difference between a person with an optimistic and pessimistic outlook is how they cope, especially then things get tough. Here are some ways to increase optimism:
- Keep things in perspective: Even when challenges or troubles show up, do your best not to exaggerate the bad. Avoid catastrophic thinking, such as, “This will last forever.” Look for what is going well, including things in your daily routine, such as, “I have a safe place to live” or “I have good friends.”
- Look for the lesson in hardship: No one welcomes hardship, but try to look at the way the hardship might work out to bring a better situation. For example, if you lose your job, be open to the idea that you might get one you like better. Keep in mind the wisdom attributed to Alexander Graham Bell: “When one door closes, another opens.”
- Focus on things you can control: You can’t make other people behave the way you think is right, so focus on your own behavior and actions. You can’t control the weather, but prepare your home for a flood or hurricane to keep some sense of human control when facing natural forces.
- Use positive thoughts and affirmations: Say to yourself, “I’ll figure out a way to make things work,” or “I’ve gotten through many challenges and I can get through this one.”
- Keep a gratitude journal: Every morning or evening write down 10 things you are thankful for and notice the small things, such as birds singing in the morning, a great cup of coffee, dinner with your family, or a phone call from a friend. Develop an “attitude of gratitude.”
Neighmond, Patti, “Optimism: Finding the Bright Side Might Help You LIve Longer,” NPR, Sept. 1, 2019.
Lee, Lewina O.; James, Peter; & Zevon, Emily S., “Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women,” PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), Sept. 10, 2019.
Harvard Medical School, “Optimism and Your Health,” Harvard Health Publishing, May 2008.
Smith, Emily Esahani, “The Benefits of Optimism are Real,” The Atlantic, March 1, 2013.
Green, Heidi, “How to Increase Resilience with Optimism and Positivity,” healthyplace.com, Jan. 23, 2019.