Since we’ve rolled into our 50s and beyond, we’ve lived by this idea: Aging is a fact of life, but aging boldly is a state of mind. New research supports this idea that your mindset is a powerful factor in not only how healthy you stay as you age, but how long you live.
In a new study conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a quarter of women with the most positive outlook would probably live 5.4 percent longer than the least optimistic 25 percent of study participants. The research, Optimism and Healthy Aging in Women, is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The more optimistic women were also 10 percent more likely to live beyond the age of 90.
The more optimistic women were also 10 percent more likely to live beyond the age of 90 than the least optimistic cohort. The link between optimism and longer lifespan could be seen across racial and ethnic groups, the researchers said.
“Optimism may be an important asset to consider for promoting health and longevity in diverse populations,” the authors concluded. “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.”
This suggests that your point of view can be more powerful than the distance you walk every day (though that surely is important).
All About Optimism
The Harvard Study is just the latest research to confirm the mind-over-aging findings. A study of more than 33,000 women in 2019 looked at whether higher optimism is associated with better health in older age. The results suggest optimistic women were 23% more likely to age healthily.
Another study of 1,429 men and 69,744 women in 2019 found that optimism was related to lifespans that were on average 11 percent to 15 percent longer. Optimism was also linked to the likelihood of “exceptional longevity”—living to the age of 85 or beyond—according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Optimists tend to report less distress in their daily lives, even when there are challenges.
Optimism is the expectation that good things will happen, the PNAS study explains. It can also mean believing in a positive future, and a feeling of having control over how it turns out.
Another article explains that optimists generally have more positive than negative expectations. They also tend to report less distress in their daily lives, even when there are challenges.
This affects how people “experience situations in their daily lives, their health, and how they deal with emotions and stress,” explain the authors of the study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. They add that optimism tends to be a general outlook, rather than one focused on how or why a goal can be reached.
Can You Train Yourself to be More Optimistic?
If you tend to be on the Eeyore side of the optimism scale, all this news about optimism could make you, um, even more pessimistic about your own prospects. But optimism is a teachable skill, one that you can even teach yourself, according to a paper published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
The authors analyzed 29 different studies on optimism interventions, encompassing a total of more than 3,300 participants. Broadly speaking, the participants in those studies who went through some sort of intervention—including meditation, mindfulness training, stress-management training, and cognitive behavioral therapy—saw greater increases in their levels of optimism than members of the various control groups.
Thirty-five percent of your disposition is not genetic, so you can shift towards more optimism, with some effort.
One of the most effective techniques was something called the Best Possible Self exercise. Here’s how it works: Whatever life’s perceived limitations, frustrations or problems, take time to write down and imagine the ideal you. “Where would you like to be five years from now” is a common interview question and also a great standard to live by. By challenging your vision and imagination, it can foster a more positive mindset.
But there are limits. Dr Joan Costa-i-Font, a professor of health economics at the London School of Economics, believes that a large proportion of someone’s optimism is genetic, just like intelligence is. “A big share of it is down to genes,” he told inews in the U.K. “But 35 per cent is not, so while I don’t believe you can transform from a pessimist into an optimist, you can shift towards more optimism, with some effort.”
Another technique is to write down counterarguments to negative feelings about the world to get a sense of balance. Researchers say we often distort reality in our own minds, taking one negative thing and extrapolating and generalizing. In this world today—with all the craziness and social media amplifying craziness—this is an essential skill for maintaining equilibrium.
And if you can do that, then there’s a good chance we’ll be seeing you at 90!