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Optimism May Be the Key to a Long Life

'Looking on the bright side' could lead to living to age 90 and beyond

By Sally Benford

Do optimists live longer? It's a question researchers have been trying to answer for years. But, no doubt, the events of 2020 and beyond have pushed even lifelong optimists to their limits.

The pandemic, partisan politics, gun violence, soured race relations, rising inflation and stock market woes all account for some negative news. But take heart because a new study indicates that positivity pays off, particularly when it comes to living longer.

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Results from a recent study found that participants with higher levels of optimism are more likely to live longer — to the age of 90 and beyond.

Results from a study published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society  in 2022 found that participants with higher levels of optimism are more likely to live longer — to the age of 90 and beyond. 

"We defined exceptional longevity as living past the age of 90."

Study author Hayami Koga, MD and PhD candidate at Harvard T.H. Chan Public School of Health, says that because most previous studies on optimism and longevity relied on white participants, she and her colleagues broadened the study to diverse races and ethnicities and concluded that ethnic differences had no impact on longevity. 

In other words, women of every ethnicity studied who faced life optimistically were associated with a 5.4% longer lifespan than those who were the least optimistic.

Optimism Leads To A Healthy Lifestyle and Vice-Versa

Although the study didn't use childhood or culture as factors, the research did consider the participant's way of life.

While optimists have a positive outlook on life, they are also pragmatic.

"One thing we looked at was lifestyle. We followed prior research and designed what we call the lifestyle score. The specific factors we looked at were exercise, diet, smoking, alcohol consumption and BMI (Body Mass Index). We looked at this as a pathway linking optimism to lifestyle, which then goes to a longer life," Koga says. 

"We defined exceptional longevity as living past the age of 90. We initially looked at age 85, but it was common for these women to live past 85 because they were fairly healthy," adds Koga.

Optimism Is An Opportunity

My mother was the eternal optimist, always looking at the bright side of any issue and encouraging her children to do the same. However, my dad had more of a pessimistic outlook on life in general, and I tend to lean that way. 

But, whenever things look bleak, I can hear my mother telling me to look for the good in all things. While optimists have a positive outlook on life, they also are pragmatic. So when faced with challenges — inevitable life experiences — they tend to look at those issues as learning opportunities, and that's what I try to do.

Koga said that the study shows that optimism leads to a healthy lifestyle, which then leads to longevity.


Good News For All

Koga said that research has found that optimism is not determined by birth, and studies show that optimism and other pathways to psychological well-being can be developed.

"Intervention studies in psychology focus on imagining your best possible future and indulging in that thought. Other things like gratitude and other small interventions can increase levels of optimism, so it is modifiable," Koga says.

For the Eeyores out there, experts say that achieving an optimistic outlook later in life is possible and comes with health benefits. So what are the best ways to gain a positive perspective?

Don't Sweat The Small Stuff

Dr. Carolina Estevez, a licensed psychologist with Infinite Recovery in Austin, Texas, says that looking at life positively can help you be more resilient in the face of difficult times, better manage stress and cope with adversity.

"In keeping a positive mindset, it's critical to avoid sweating the small stuff."

These practices can lower the stress hormone cortisol and blood pressure, regulate heart rate, and even improve our immune systems. Additionally, Estevez says that having a sense of humor provides even more benefits.

"In keeping a positive mindset, it's critical to avoid sweating the small stuff. Try to find humor in the midst of challenges and problems that come your way, and most importantly, learn how to laugh at yourself from time to time," Estevez says.

Celebrity Betty White famously described herself as a "cockeyed optimist." White lived until 99 — just a couple of weeks shy of 100 and had a "glass-half-full" approach to life and a sense of humor.

She once said, "It's your outlook on life that counts. If you take yourself lightly and don't take yourself too seriously, pretty soon you can find the humor in our everyday lives. And sometimes it can be a lifesaver."

Learning To Laugh

It's been said that laughter is the best medicine. Studies show that humor can lower the stress hormone cortisol and lessen anxiety and tension while promoting happiness and well-being.

Optimism can help provide a sense of purpose and meaning to life, something known to be important for living longer.

Can a pessimist develop the ability to laugh — especially at themselves? According to the Mayo Clinic, humor can be learned. In addition, Mayo experts explain that laughter and a sense of humor offer long-term health benefits, including reduced pain, better mood, increased coping skills and improved immune systems.

"Laughter enhances oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain; positive thoughts can actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses," according to the clinic's website.

Look For Joy

Along with humor and a healthy lifestyle, other ways to increase optimism and longevity include:

  • Practicing daily gratitude.
  • Focusing on positive self-talk.
  • Maintaining a solid social network.
  • Reframing negative thoughts.

Estevez says to look for things that bring you joy. For example, reconnect with old friends or revive a former hobby. Helping others is another way to improve not only your community but your self-esteem, too. 

Many retirees find fulfillment through connecting with those less fortunate. Consider new opportunities to help others that draw on your knowledge and experience.

"Optimism can help provide a sense of purpose and meaning to life, something known to be important for living longer. Optimists tend to focus on the positive aspects of life and look for ways to make it better, which helps them stay engaged in life even as they age," says Estevez.

Focus On The Positive

Above all, aging is inevitable, so optimism is vital to our health. However, the bottom line to a longer, healthier life may rely as much on mindset as a lifestyle.

"Most studies looking at longevity focus on negative factors, such as depression or smoking, so it's also important to look at the positive things like optimism. These attitudes may be assets for health," Koga says.

Koga said that the study's results could reframe how people view the decisions and outlooks that affect their health — and, in turn, their happiness.

Sally Benford
Sally Benford is a Phoenix-based freelance journalist who currently writes about a wide range of topics, including health, careers, lifestyle, travel and history. Read More
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