BOSTON — Being an optimist could lead to a longer life, according to new research. A large-scale study found those who “always look on the bright side of life” were more likely to make it to the age of 90.
The phenomenon applied across racial and ethnic groups, adding to evidence that happiness is good for the body as well as the mind. Lead author Hayami Koga, a PhD candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, believes staying positive is as good for you as exercise.
“Although optimism itself may be affected by social structural factors, such as race and ethnicity, our research suggests that the benefits of optimism may hold across diverse groups,” Koga says in a university release.
“A lot of previous work has focused on deficits or risk factors that increase the risks for diseases and premature death. Our findings suggest that there’s value to focusing on positive psychological factors, like optimism, as possible new ways of promoting longevity and healthy aging across diverse groups.”
Living 5 percent longer by staying positive
The findings come from a review of 159,255 women in the U.S. tracked for up to 26 years. Researchers assessed their level of optimism using a questionnaire called the “Life Orientation Test” — one of the most common measures of optimism in research and practice.
The team also took other factors such as education, marital status, income, and chronic conditions in account. Those ranked in the top 25 percent for optimism lived an average of 5.4 percent longer than their peers in the lowest quarter.
“Higher optimism was associated with longer lifespan and a greater likelihood of achieving exceptional longevity overall and across racial and ethnic groups. The contribution of lifestyle to these associations was modest,” study authors write in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
“Optimism may promote health and longevity in diverse racial and ethnic groups. Future research should investigate these associations in less long-lived populations.”
Growing evidence suggests positive psychological factors have a connection to a lower risk of morbidity and mortality. In particular, optimism – the generalized expectation of positive future outcomes – displays a consistent association with improved health outcomes, including exceptional longevity.
A sunny disposition is partly in the genes. However, experiments show writing exercises and cognitive-behavioral strategies can also inspire more optimism.
“This work, in conjunction with findings linking optimism to a range of outcomes including physical health, suggest optimism may be a novel target for intervention to improve health,” Koga says, according to a statement from SWNS.
Optimistic people do more to live healthy
Previous research has also suggested optimistic individuals take more proactive approaches to improving their health. They are also more likely to engage in healthy behaviors such as increased physical activity, eating a healthier diet, and not smoking.
“This evidence suggests such behaviors may mediate the relationship between optimism and longevity,” the researcher tells SWNS.
The new findings back previous work. One study among mostly white American women found being optimistic led to a 15-percent longer lifespan and 50 percent greater odds of achieving exceptional longevity.
“Of note, exercise has been widely recognized as an important factor for health and studies have shown that regular exercise adds 0.4 to 4.2 years of life when adjusting for confounding risk factors,” Koga says in a statement. “Thus, our findings suggest the impact of optimism may be comparable to that of exercise.”
Psychological stress and distress can trigger a host of physiological changes that are bad for health, study authors add. These include activation of the immune and autonomic nervous system, changes in brain chemicals, blood clot and oxidative stress.
“Positive psychological factors may buffer psychological stress as well as the physiologic reactions,” Koga tells SWNS. “In addition, optimists appear to have greater social support, use problem-solving and planning strategies to minimize health risks and are better able to regulate emotions and behavior.”
“We tend to focus on the negative risk factors that affect our health,” Koga concludes. “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.”
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.