Have you ever been told to look at the glass as half full instead of half empty? Or reminded that every cloud has a “silver lining?” These age-old idioms tell us to see the best in a situation and have hope things will work out – in other words, to practice optimism. It turns out doing this not only helps us feel better, but may help us live longer, too.
A 2019 study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston University School of Medicine and the National Center for PTSD at VA Boston found that optimists, on average, live 11 to 15 percent longer and have 50 to 70 percent greater odds of living to at least 85 than their most pessimistic peers. The researchers looked at medical data from two long-term studies and adjusted for factors like health conditions, socioeconomic background and behavioral patterns.
Health professionals have long known that diet, exercise, limiting alcohol intake and avoiding tobacco are integral to living a longer, healthier life, and this study shows that our psychology may also play a key role in keeping us alive.
“We wanted to consider the benefits of psychological resources like optimism as possible new targets for promoting healthy aging,” said Lewina Lee, study author and clinical research psychologist at VA Boston.
Researchers are unclear how exactly optimism helped subjects live longer, but the study’s senior author speculates that optimists may be able to better regulate their emotions and bounce back from stress more easily. Considering chronic stress negatively impacts your body and your health and can even shorten life expectancy, stress management could be a strong weapon in the battle against aging. Prior research also suggests that optimists eat healthier, have better cardiovascular health and have better lung function overall.
Anyone Can Be an Optimist
For the pessimists out there, here’s something you can be optimistic about: psychologists say optimism can be learned through relatively simple and affordable techniques. Try these exercises to shift your perspective and train your brain to be more optimistic:
- Try on a positive lens. Sometimes, pessimistic thinking is a habit that needs to be broken. Try doing this by consciously shifting your perspective when negativity strikes. For example, instead of fixating on how bad the weather was today, think about what you gained from the extra time indoors.
- Practice gratitude. Another way to cultivate optimism is to take stock of what you’re grateful for. Try taking five minutes every day to write down one or two things that made you grateful – a random act of kindness by a stranger, a moment of laughter with a friend or anything that made you happy.
- Accept what you can’t control. Some pessimists have trouble dealing with uncertainty and may dwell on hypothetical stressors. It’s important to remember that while you may not be able to control what life throws at you, you are in control of your reaction. Practicing mindfulness can help keep you in the present and prevent you from ruminating over your stressors.
While optimism won’t cure you of stress, a positive mindset may help you approach your stressors in a more productive way, stay resilient against them and hopefully mitigate their harmful health effects in the process. For more information, check out these LHSFNA resources:
- Stress Management: Manage Stress the Healthy Way
- “Positive Psychology: A Different Approach to Mental Health”