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.
By Meg Selig, author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success.
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, as I write here.
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.
Reprinted (in part) with permission. © Meg Selig, 2020. All rights reserved. For permissions, click here.
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