By Meg Selig
Does an optimistic attitude have health benefits as we age? The question is important because if optimism does lead to healthier aging, then programs could be developed to bolster an optimistic mindset in both the old and the young.
Past research has painted a surprisingly gloomy picture of the relationship between optimism and long life.
For example, Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin argued in their 2011 book, The Longevity Factor, that cheerfulness and optimism were not likely to lead to longevity. Tracing the life histories of children labeled cheerful and optimistic by parents and teachers, they discovered that “cheerful and optimistic children were less likely to live to an old age than their more staid and sober counterparts!” They speculated that carefree attitudes might lead to riskier behaviors such as drinking and smoking or less regard for a healthy lifestyle in general. By contrast, their research pointed to the personality trait of conscientiousness as the key to long life.
However, recent research presents a more nuanced and, well, optimistic picture of the relationship between optimism, longevity, and health.
Here are the results of recent studies that tell a happier story about the effects of optimism on longevity, memory, and intimate relationships. After describing the research, I’ll speculate about why the earlier and more recent studies seem to contradict each other. Then, since (spoiler alert) it does seem that an optimistic attitude does yield health benefits, I’ll suggest four activities to stimulate a more optimistic mindset.
Optimism and Longevity
In survey research which followed 69,744 women and 1,429 men over 10-30 years, researchers discovered that “individuals with greater optimism are more likely to live longer and to achieve ‘exceptional longevity,’ that is, living to age 85 or older.” This result held true even after accounting for chronic illnesses, health behaviors, depression, and age.
How might optimism affect longevity? The authors of the study explain that “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 results are in line with previous studies that have shown that optimism reduces the risk of premature death in both mid-life and later life.
Optimism and Memory
A positive outlook on life is associated with less memory decline.
That is the conclusion of a 2020 study in the journal Psychological Science. Individuals with “positive affect,” that is, who felt enthusiastic and cheerful, were less likely to experience memory decline as they aged. As summarized by two of the study’s authors, “Our findings showed that memory declined with age … However, individuals with higher levels of positive affect had a less steep memory decline over the course of almost a decade.”
Optimism and Partner Health
Optimism appears to be good not only for an individual’s health but also for their partner’s health. In a study that followed 4,500 heterosexual partners for eight years, researchers found that one optimistic partner served to stave off risk factors leading to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and cognitive decline in the other partner. How did that work?
If the optimistic partner practiced healthy behaviors such as eating right and exercising, the other partner was more likely to follow suit. These findings are in line with studies showing that dementia is not inevitable but can be staved off by modifying a variety of health behaviors.
Two Definitions of Optimism
How is it possible that recent research on optimism contradicts earlier research, especially in the area of longevity? The answer may lie in different definitions of optimism.
In research cited in The Longevity Project, optimism is defined as “a carefree attitude” toward life. However, in the 2020 longevity research, optimism is defined as “a general expectation that good things will happen or believing that the future will be favorable because we can control important outcomes.” These definitions are strikingly dissimilar. The second invokes the idea that people can set goals and control important aspects of their own future.
By this definition, optimism is highly related to having a sense of agency and purpose. “Purpose” has already been shown in many studies to be a prime factor in elders’ happiness as they age. In addition, it lowers the risk of premature death, promotes healthy behaviors and friendships, and might even alleviate loneliness, as I point out in my new book, Silver Sparks: Thoughts on Growing Older, Wiser, and Happier.
What You Can Do Right Now
While there is a genetic aspect to optimism, the belief that optimism is fully determined by one’s genes is not only inaccurate but self-limiting. Referring to the study that links optimism to a longer life, researcher Lewina Lee asserts that “optimism may be modifiable using relatively simple techniques or therapies.”
Numerous studies support her idea. These studies, like the classic “Three Good Things” exercise (below), strongly suggest that you can cultivate well-being through deliberate practice. In other words, happiness, optimism, and other positive emotions are trainable.
To add more optimism to your outlook, try these four simple activities that could help you see a more positive future for yourself:
- Set one or more achievable goals that are in line with your values. Start small and make it easy for yourself. Working on these goals, however tiny, will provide you with a sense of purpose.
- Decide what you want your life to look like in five years. Use this information to make good decisions now, whether about health, relationships, career, or education. Alternative: Seek out short-term therapy or career counseling to help you envision a better future for yourself.
- Try a gratitude or happiness practice. For example, at the end of the day for just one week, focus on “Three Good Things” that happened that day that you are thankful for along with why you think they happened.
- Plan out an act of kindness you will do for someone—send a card or email, make a call, or volunteer. Random acts of kindness, like spontaneous compliments, count, too.
In a nutshell, optimism is not necessarily seeing the glass as half full; rather, it is the confidence that you can take the glass to the sink and fill it yourself.
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