The idea that an optimistic attitude is not only correlated with but can perhaps cause people to live longer became established as scientific fact several years ago by Yale psychologist Becca Levy. In her studies of people's perceptions about the aging process, Levy found that those who held more favorable views about getting older actually lived to older ages than those who took a less sanguine attitude about their own aging. This research was a great boost to other gerontologists who, like myself, think that society's negative depiction of the aging process creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. We become what we are expected to become and if the expectation is negative, we give up on ourselves. As a result, we don't take advantage of strategies that could keep us healthier and more productive.
New research is suggesting some of the mechanisms that could account for this attitude-longevity effect. To understand this research, we need to take a small detour from psychology to cell biology. The telomere, shown here (in pink), is a region of DNA at the end of the chromosome that doesn't contain genetic information. It seems to be there to protect the genetic material in the chromosome during the process of cell replication. Every time cells replicate, the chromosomes become a little shorter. Eventually the losses affect not only the telomeres but also start to affect the genetic material we care about- in other words the genes that code the proteins we need to keep our bodies operating smoothly.
Still here? I know, most psychologists aren't big fans of biology, but this is one part of biology that you should care about. If you don't have telomeres, bad things start to happen when proteins are manufactured in the cells and you start to lose some important functions. Some researchers believe that the telomeres are the key to long life. Just in case you think it would be a good idea to cure aging by promoting telomere growth, though, I have bad news. Unimpeded telomere growth is a process implicated in cancer, as was discovered by 2009 Nobel prizewinners Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak.
But I digress. The main point here is that we need telomeres and if we lose them prematurely we will age prematurely. Now, let's get back to happiness.
A research team headed by UC San Francisco psychologist Aoife O'Donovan studied telomere length in the immune system cells (the ones that ward off disease) of postmenopausal women ranging from 50 to 86 years old. Not only did the pessimists have poorer immune system functioning, but they also had shorter telomeres than the optimists. In fact, the correlation between pessimism and telomere length, even controlling for other important characteristics of their subjects (such as whether they were caregivers), was a whopping -.55. Psychologists rarely get correlations of this magnitude.
You're thinking- once again- correlation does not equal causation. Because this was a correlational study, there is definitely the possibility that rather than pessimism causing a decrease in telomere length other factors were at play. Perhaps a more aggressive cell replication process, one that saws off the telomeres, causes greater pessimism. Behavioral geneticists are learning all sorts of ways that the environment can alter a cell's genetic information. It's also possible that harsh early environments cause people to become pessimistic and also start the stress that will harm their telomeres.
All of this is very well and good, but how can you apply these findings to your life? Researchers who study happiness, positive psychology, and well-being are establishing a body of knowledge about ways we can boost our immune system through boosting our positive emotions. You are not fated to have tiny telomeres because you started out in life with a doom and gloom disposition.
In my research on long-term fulfillment in midlife adults, published in my recent book, The Search for Fulfillment, I identified a developmental pathway from college to the 50s called the "Triumphant Trail." The men and women who managed to cope most successfully with adversity had, when they were in college, more optimistic personalities than their peers. Their scores were high on Erik Erikson's concept of "trust," meaning that they had faith in their environment and felt that the world was a good place. Having this optimistic outlook perhaps gave them the wherewithall to survive loss of children, spouses, and other personal tragedies.
You can take an online quiz so that you can determine whether you are on one of the pathways leading to fulfillment or whether, instead, your pathway has taken a negative turn. More importantly, once you've taken that quiz, you can determine by going to The Search for Fulfillment website which action plan you need to follow in order to correct your life's direction. The action plans summarized there are shorthand for the longer versions you can read about in the book, but even the shorthand forms can be helpful in re-directing your life now.
So don't worry about your telomeres; instead focus on what you can do to change your attitude and ultimately your life's pathway. No matter what your age, and no matter what your life circumstances, you can take charge of your outlook so that your life is happier and, as a result, longer.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010
O'Donovan, A., Lin, J., Dhabhar, F. S., Wolkowitz, O., Tillie, J. M., Blackburn, E., et al. (2009). Pessimism correlates with leukocyte telomere shortness and elevated interleukin-6 in post-menopausal women. Brain Behavior & Immunity, 23, 446-449.
Levy, B. R., Slade, M. D., Kunkel, S. R., & Kasl, S. V. (2002). Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 261-270.