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Optimists live longer, study finds. Here's how to boost positive thinking

Some people are wired to be pessimistic, but it’s possible to learn how to be more optimistic and reap the health benefits, experts say.
/ Source: TODAY

Expecting good things to happen may be key to a long life.

Having a high level of optimism was associated with longer lifespan past age 90, according to a recent study of almost 160,000 racially and ethnically diverse, postmenopausal women by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of public health.

The study enrolled women between ages 50 and 79 and gathered data and survey responses on them for up to 26 years. The 25% most optimistic participants were likely to live up to 5.4% longer and were 10% more likely to live beyond 90 than the least optimistic quarter participants.

These findings stayed the same after accounting for demographics, chronic conditions and depression. "Lifestyle factors, such as regular exercise and healthy eating, accounted for less than a quarter of the optimism-lifespan association, indicating that other factors may be at play," a press release noted.

“We tend to focus on the negative risk factors that affect our health," lead author Hayami Koga, a PhD student studying population health sciences, said in a statement. “It is also important to think about the positive resources such as optimism that may be beneficial to our health, especially if we see that these benefits are seen across racial and ethnic groups.”

Previous research has found similar results. A 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences based on data from 69,744 women and 1,429 men found that being in the group with the most positive outlook was related to an 11 to 15% longer life span versus the least optimistic group. The findings suggest optimism may be an important strategy to promote healthy aging, the authors wrote.

The women, who had been followed since 1976, completed an optimism assessment in 2004. The questionnaire asked how strongly they agreed with statements like, "In uncertain times, I usually expect the best" or "I'm always optimistic about my future." The men, who have been followed since 1961, completed a similar type of optimism scale in 1986.

For both men and women, higher optimism levels were associated with living longer and higher odds of reaching age 85.

Scientists don’t fully understand the pathways from optimism to health and longevity, but there are some theories, author of the 2019 study Lewina Lee, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine, told TODAY at the time.

Optimistic people are more likely to have goals and the confidence to reach them, so optimism may help people cultivate and maintain healthier habits, she said. Previous studies have found people who are highly optimistic have a lower chance of dying prematurely from stroke, heart disease and even cancer.

Optimistic people may also be better at regulating their emotions during stressful situations. They’re less likely to be angry or agitated, said Josh Klapow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and behavioral scientist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“It’s not that people who are optimistic don’t get stressed or don’t get angry, but it happens less frequently,” Klapow, who was not involved in either study, told TODAY. “So physiologically, it puts them at less risk for all of the negative consequences that we know from stress.”

They’re also more likely to form social connections because they see the good in people, he added. Such bonds protect against loneliness, which comes with its own serious health risks.

Some people are naturally born to be more pessimistic, but it’s absolutely possible for them to learn how to be more positive, Klapow said.

“This is not about telling yourself to be happy,” he noted. “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.”

How to boost your positive thinking:

  • Maintain a daily gratitude practice: Keep a gratitude journal and write down three or more things that you are grateful for in your life at the end of each day. It can be a supportive spouse, healthy kids, a sunny day or engaging job.
  • Keep track of positive events in your life: Every night, write down three or more positive events that happened that day. Perhaps your boss made an encouraging comment, you got to spend time with your friends or the commute was surprisingly good.
  • Visualize your best possible self: Regularly and clearly imagine a future in which everything has turned out as well as possible and you have achieved all of your life goals.

Studies have found such daily exercises reorient your brain towards looking for the positive.

“We spend a lot of time looking around the world for things that could harm us or things that have gone wrong that we don’t want to happen again,” Klapow said.

“So forcing your brain to look for things you’re grateful for and positive things teaches your brain that we can both avoid negative and also seek positive.”