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Look on the bright side of life. You’ll live longer!

By Mark Mahoney

As societal pressures ramp on a daily basis, our states of mind and outlook on life are tempered by many factors.  A new decades-long epidemiologic research study identifies a strong correlational (not causal) association between optimism and “exceptional longevity,” which is described as living to age 85 or older.  It noted that women and men with greater optimism tend to live longer than their pessimistic peers, on average.

Mark Mahoney, Ph.D.

Do you consider yourself to be an optimist?

In general, optimists tend to look on the bright side and have positive expectations about the future. Unfortunately a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey published on Aug. 25 reports that many Americans are not optimistic. The latest poll finds that — despite Americans’ overall satisfaction with the state of the U.S. economy and their own personal finances — a majority say they are angry at the nation’s political and financial establishment, anxious about its economic future, and pessimistic about the country they’re leaving for the next generation.

There is lots of empirical evidence suggesting that whether you view the world through a pessimistic or optimistic lens is within the locus of your control. When it comes to optimism, the science is compelling. Most people think they are either an optimist or pessimist by nature — and there may be some predisposition — but optimism is also a state of mind that can be learned and practiced. You can learn to be more optimistic.

A discussion published in Psychology Today of some of the research supporting the idea that your brain can be trained to self-regulate negative thinking can be viewed here.

Study details/discussion

This study involved more than 70,000 participants who completed a survey to measure their levels of optimism, overall health, and lifestyle habits such as smoking, alcohol use, and diet. One goal of this research was to pinpoint specific psychosocial factors that promote resilient aging across a lifespan. Some study participants were followed for up to three decades (1986–2016).

According to Lewina Lee, the principal author of this study, a clinical research psychologist at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in Boston and an assistant professor of psychiatry at BUSM, “While research has identified many risk factors for diseases and premature death, we know relatively less about positive psychosocial factors that can promote healthy aging,”  Lee said. “This study has strong public health relevance because it suggests that optimism is one such psychosocial asset that has the potential to extend the human lifespan. Interestingly, optimism may be modifiable using relatively simple techniques or therapies.”

“Other research suggests that more optimistic people may be able to regulate emotions and behavior as well as bounce back from stressors and difficulties more effectively,” co-senior author Laura Kubzansky of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said in a statement.

Optimism in old age leads to longer lives.

“Research on the reason why optimism matters so much remains to be done, but the link between optimism and health is becoming more evident,” co-senior author Francine Grodstein added. Grodstein is a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as well as a professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Study suggests optimism is valuable

On average, the most optimistic men and women in the study had odds of reaching age 85 that were 50-70 percent greater than the least optimistic study participants. These statistics take demographic differences and lifestyle into consideration. After adjusting for demographics and health conditions, women and men in the highest versus lowest “optimism quartile” had a 14.9 percent longer lifespan.

“Given work indicating optimism is modifiable, these findings suggest optimism may provide a valuable target to test for strategies to promote longevity,” the authors concluded.

Evidence suggests that optimists live longer.

This study is correlational and cannot conclude if optimism actually causes exceptional longevity. The million-dollar question remains: Why is optimism associated with longevity?

This new research is an important look at potentially relevant information on the importance of optimism in our daily lives and its significance for longevity.

This decades-long epidemiological study was a collaborative effort between researchers at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), Harvard Medical School, and the National Center for PTSD in Boston. It was published in on August 26 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  To access the abstract of this article click here.
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Mark A. Mahoney, Ph.D. has been a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist for over 35 years and completed graduate studies in Nutrition & Public Health at Columbia University. He can be reached at marqos69@hotmail.com.