Cheer Up, You’ll Live Longer

Are you an Oscar the Grouch type, reveling in the midst of misery? Do you connect with Eeyore, a forlorn pessimist with only an occasional glint of joy? You might want to check your life insurance policy.

Study after study has linked a positive outlook to longevity. Optimists report having fewer health problems or difficulties with their work or social life; they experience less pain, have more energy and are happier, calmer and more peaceful. “Optimists appear to have a lower risk of death even when we take in all these important factors like smoking, diabetes, hypertension, income and race,” says Hilary Tindle, M.D., M.P.H. She recently led a research team at the University of Pittsburgh that analyzed data from the Women’s Health Initiative, an ongoing research project that started following 100,000 women over age 50 in 1994. Tindle’s team found that eight years into the study, the most optimistic women were 30 percent less likely to die of heart disease and 14 percent less likely to die compared to women with a pessimistic outlook.

Another recent paper details a 40-year study at the Mayo Clinic that followed 7,000 participants who took a personality test in the early 1960s. For every 100 people who participated, the 25 most pessimistic, anxious and depressed had a 30 percent higher chance of dying younger than the optimists at the head of the pack. Since this study focused only on pessimistic and negative traits, lead author Walter Rocca, M.D., M.P.H., plans to investigate the positive side in the future.

Can Optimism Change Your Future?
“Optimism is an expectation that good events will be more plentiful than bad events in the future,” says Christopher Peterson, Ph.D. But it’s not wishful thinking: A belief that your actions will lead to a positive event can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, says Dr. Peterson, “Optimism isn’t going to create a job, but it’s going to help you do something that might get you a job.”

Whether or not we’re born with an optimistic or pessimistic bent is another question without a definitive answer, though researchers believe genetics probably plays a role. “It remains unclear how much of our pessimism or optimism is genetically inherited,” says Dr. Rocca. “Our outlook could be due to events taking place during intrauterine life, due to events taking place in childhood and adolescence or due to events later in life.”

Even if you were born an Eeyore, says Dr. Peterson, “genetic” does not mean “immutable.” You do have the power to improve your attitude, if not wholly change it. If you want brighten up your point of view, try his suggestions:

  • Hang out with other optimistic people. We can’t choose our family, but we can choose our friends. Optimism is contagious, as is pessimism.
  • Learn to savor your triumphs. Recognize when things have gone well and quietly congratulate yourself.
  • Reframe your thinking. You can interrupt yourself when you go off on a pessimistic tangent and redirect yourself toward the positive. Just because you’re five minutes late does not make you an unlovable loser.

While it’s still unclear whether or not adopting optimistic behaviors will change your health for the better, Dr. Tindle says, “I’m optimistic about the possibility of change. People do make positive changes. They get better from depression; they quit smoking.”

Dr. Rocca agrees: “I think that people can be helped to develop a more positive attitude towards life and life events. Although some fundamental traits may be quite resistant to change, people can improve their coping skills and improve their lives a great deal.”

Originally published on iVillage.com

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