Can Looking on the Bright Side Help You Live Longer?

Research demonstrates optimism is connected to improved health.

Posted Feb 05, 2020

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

We all like to be around optimistic people, those who feel hopeful and confident about the future, and embody a positive mental attitude.

Now a growing body of research demonstrates that those “glass-is-half-full” types are not just more pleasant to be around; they are more likely to live longer, healthier lives.

While the available evidence only shows a connection between optimism and health, not a cause-and-effect relationship, there are enough data to encourage medical and psychological researchers to think more carefully about optimism.

The most recent analysis of this topic was published in JAMA Network Open last September. Cardiology and behavioral science researchers combined the data from 15 studies to measure the link between optimism, cardiovascular events, and death. Nearly 230,000 people in total participated in the studies.

Researchers found that people with optimistic attitudes were significantly less likely to experience a heart attack, stroke, or angina, and were less likely to die from any cause compared to pessimistic people in the study.

A longitudinal study also published last September yielded similar findings. This analysis used data from two large studies – one following thousands of women and the other following thousands of men over the course of decades. Researchers measured participants’ levels of optimism and pessimism, and then created complex models to determine which participants would live to be 85 or older.

The study found that the most optimistic people had an approximately 15 percent longer lifespan compared to the most pessimistic people — and were significantly more likely to survive to age 85.

What’s going on here?

There are some data that more optimistic people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, such as engaging in physical activity, maintaining a healthy diet, and avoiding smoking. Researchers also believe that feeling pessimistic leads the body to release stress hormones that lead to inflammation and create metabolic problems such as diabetes.

While researchers continue working to understand exactly how optimism promotes health, there is enough evidence to merit improving your own optimism.

Cornell psychologist Anthony Ong studies the emotional determinants of health in adulthood, and believes there is much more to learn about the connection between optimism and health. “Accumulating data from prospective observational studies suggest a robust link between optimism and reduced mortality,” he said. “An unanswered question, however, is how large a boost in optimism would be needed to have a measurable impact on health. To date, controlled intervention studies that demonstrate sustained improvements in optimism and subsequent health have yet to be conducted. Nonetheless, this research holds great potential for improving population health.”

The take-home message: Your health is better off if you’re able to look at the bright side of things, so do your best to cultivate an optimistic attitude.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.