Expect good things to happen and you may live a longer life.
People who are highly optimistic have a lower chance of dying prematurely from stroke, heart disease and even cancer, researchers at Harvard University's Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness have found.
The study, published Wednesday in the American Journal of Epidemiology, notes “optimism plays an important role in health and longevity.”
There are three main theories about why that’s happening, said co-author Eric Kim, research fellow at the department of social and behavioral sciences in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“The first is that optimistic people just tend to act in healthier ways and there are a lot of studies showing that optimists eat healthier, they exercise more,” Kim told TODAY.
Optimists also tend to have healthier coping styles. When facing life’s challenges, they accept circumstances that can’t be changed and create contingency plans when things don’t work. They also seek support, Kim noted.
But the “really intriguing” — and least established — explanation is that optimism may directly impact our biological functioning, Kim said. It’s associated with less inflammation and more antioxidants.
The researchers analyzed health data from more than 70,000 women who took part in the Nurses’ Health Study. Each woman’s level of optimism was measured in 2004 with the help of the Life Orientation Test-Revised, a standardized scale that asks participants to rate how much they agree with 10 statements.
1. In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.
2. It's easy for me to relax.
3. If something goes wrong for me, it will.
4. I'm always optimistic about my future.
5. I enjoy my friends a lot.
6. It's important for me to keep busy.
7. I hardly ever expect things to go my way.
8. I don't get upset too easily.
9. I rarely count on good things happening to me.
10. Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad.
The researchers then collected information about the women’s health and behaviors, and monitored any deaths from 2006 to 2012.
Is our outlook a preference?
They found the most optimistic women had an almost 30 percent lower risk of dying from major diseases compared with their least hopeful counterparts.
When broken down by illness, the biggest optimists had a 52 percent lower risk of dying from infection; a 39 percent lower risk of dying from stroke; a 38 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease or respiratory disease; and a 16 percent lower risk of dying from cancer.
It may be enough to make pessimists reconsider their outlook on life, a change that’s definitely possible. After all, only about 25 percent of optimism is inherited from our parents, the study notes. The rest is somewhat up to us.
“Some of it is within our control; some of it is not… we definitely don’t want to victim blame,” Kim noted.
Also, “some people just don’t want to be more optimistic — it’s a preference and I think we should respect that. I don’t think we should push it upon people.”
To be more optimistic
Research suggests these exercises can increase optimism:
1. Say everything you’re grateful for each night before you go to sleep.
2. List acts of kindness you’re performed over the last two weeks.
3. Split your life into different domains — relationship, family, career, friendships — and write down the best possible outcome for each.
4. For the next six days, spend about 20 minutes each day vividly thinking about and imagining those best possible outcomes.