Optimism Linked to Living Longer

party, birthday, older woman, balloon, confetti, getty,
A stock image of a woman at a party. Evidence suggests optimism could help a person live longer. Getty

Optimistic people are more likely to live until their 85th birthday and beyond, according to a study spanning decades.

The trait was linked to living 11 to 15 percent longer, on average, and achieving what is known as "exceptional longevity". Optimism appeared to lengthen life even when researchers accounted for potentially life-shortening factors like socioeconomic status, health conditions, diet, and whether a person smoked or drank.

The authors of the paper, published in the journal PNAS, defined optimism as expecting good things to happen, and the belief that the future will be positive because we can control important outcomes. Exceptional longevity, meanwhile, was defined as hitting or surpassing the age of 85.

Researchers studied data from two cohorts: 69,744 women from the Nurse's Health Study (NHS), and 1,429 men from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study (NAS). The former has been running since 1976, with participants filling out questionnaires biennially. In 2004, the participants filled out a survey on their optimism, which was followed up in 2014.

The NAS started in 1961, and respondents completed an optimism test in 1986. Researchers checked to see if participants up until 2016.

Of the total NHS participants, 86 percent lived to 85 or beyond, with optimism associated with a longer life. Similarly, 56 percent of the NAS participants reached 85 or beyond, with optimism again appearing to be a contributing factor.

The authors explained: "Optimistic individuals tend to have goals and the confidence to reach them; thus, optimism may foster health-promoting habits and bolster resistance of unhealthy impulses through greater engagement with one's goals, more efficacious problem-solving, and adjustment of goals when they become unattainable,"

These individuals might also experience less extreme emotional responses to, and recover faster from, stressful situations. They are also more likely to see difficulties as challenges than threats, and resist immediate rewards in favor of hitting their long-term goals.

However, the authors said the cohorts were mostly white and had higher socioeconomic status than the average American, so their findings might not relate to the wider population.

Existing studies looking at longevity have focused on biological processes, so the team wanted to contribute to the emerging evidence that a person's psychological state might play a role in their physical health.

"Optimism has some of the strongest and most consistent associations with a wide range of health outcomes," the authors explained, including cutting the risk of heart disease, protecting lung health and decreasing the likelihood of premature death. The trait is partly heritable, they said, but can also be learned and shaped by our environment.

The good news for pessimists it that past research indicates optimism can be built like a psychological muscle, with activities like meditation, writing exercises and cognitive behavioral therapy. However, more research is needed to confirm this.

Study co-author Lewina Lee, assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, told Newsweek: "We were surprised and reassured to see such similar findings across men and women."

She added: "Our results support the notion that optimism is a health asset. Evidence from randomized control trials suggests that interventions, such as imagining yourself in a future in which everything has turned out well, or more intensive cognitive-behavioral therapy, can raise levels of optimism.

"What we do not know yet is whether raising optimism can in turn promote health and longevity, and also whether the effects of these interventions on optimism are durable," Lee explained.

This article has been updated with comment from Lewina Lee.