Perspective by Fuschia Sirois, The Washington Post
Researchers tracked the life span of some 160,000 women ages 50 to 79 for 26 years. At the beginning of the study, the women completed a self-report measure of optimism. Women with the highest scores on the measure were categorized as optimists. Those with the lowest scores were considered pessimists.
Then, in 2019, the researchers followed up with the participants who were still living. They also looked at the life span of participants who had died. What they found was that those who had the highest levels of optimism were more likely to live longer. More important, the optimists were also more likely than those who were pessimists to live into their nineties. Researchers refer to this as “exceptional longevity,” considering the average life span for women in developed countries is about 83 years.
What makes these findings especially impressive is that the results remained even after accounting for other factors known to predict a long life — including education level and economic status, ethnicity and whether a person suffered from depression or other chronic health conditions.
But given that the study looked only at women, it’s uncertain whether the same would be true for men. But another study looking at both men and women also found that people with the highest levels of optimism enjoyed a life span that was between 11 and 15 percent longer than those who were the least optimistic.
The fountain of youth?
So why is it that optimists live longer? At first glance, it would seem it could have to do with their healthier lifestyles.
For example, research from several studies has found that optimism is linked to eating a healthy diet, staying physically active and being less likely to smoke cigarettes. These healthy behaviors are well known to improve heart health and reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease, which is a leading cause of death globally. Adopting a healthy lifestyle is also important for reducing the risk of other potentially deadly diseases, such as diabetes and cancer.
But having a healthy lifestyle might be only part of the reason optimists live longer-than-average lives. The latest study found that lifestyle only accounted for 24 percent of the link between optimism and longevity, which suggests a number of other factors affect longevity for optimists.
Another possible reason could be the way optimists manage stress. When faced with a stressful situation, optimists tend to deal with it head-on. They use adaptive coping strategies that help them resolve the source of the stress, or view the situation in a less stressful way. For example, optimists will problem-solve and plan ways to deal with the stressor, call on others for support or try to find a “silver lining” in the stressful situation.
All of these approaches are well known to reduce feelings of stress, as well as the biological reactions that occur when we feel stressed. It’s these biological reactions to stress — such as elevated cortisol (sometimes called the “stress hormone”), increased heart rate and blood pressure, and impaired immune system functioning — that can take a toll on health over time and increase the risk for developing life-threatening illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease. In short, the way optimists cope with stress might help protect them somewhat against its harmful effects.
Looking on the bright side
Optimism is typically viewed by researchers as a relatively stable personality trait that is determined by both genetic and early-childhood influences (such as having a secure and warm relationship with your parents or caregivers). But if you’re not naturally prone to seeing the glass as half full, there are some ways you can increase your capacity to be optimistic.
Research shows optimism can change over time and can be cultivated by engaging in simple exercises. For example, visualizing and then writing about your “best possible self” (a future version of yourself who has accomplished your goals) is a technique that studies have found can significantly increase optimism, at least temporarily. But for best results, the goals need to be both positive and reasonable, rather than just wishful thinking. Similarly, simply thinking about positive future events can also be effective for boosting optimism.