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Optimism Study Gives Optimists More Reason to Be Optimistic

Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity, a new 30-year study reports.

Women and men with greater optimism tend to live longer than their pessimistic peers, on average, according to a decades-long study published yesterday. This research identifies a strong correlational (not causal) association between optimism and "exceptional longevity," which is described as living to age 85 or older.

These findings (Lee et al., 2019) were published on August 26 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). This decades-long epidemiological study was a collaborative effort between researchers at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), Harvard Medical School, and the National Center for PTSD in Boston.

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Do you consider yourself to be an optimist? In general, optimists tend to look on the bright side and have positive expectations about the future. Unfortunately, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey published on August 25 reports that many Americans are pessimistic and feel a "deep and boiling anger." Despite overall satisfaction with the U.S. economy, the majority of respondents to this poll expressed pessimism about the country they're leaving to future generations.

As the parent of a tween, I feel pessimistic about the future sometimes, too. Nevertheless, as an ultra-endurance athlete, I spent decades finding a psychological sweet-spot between "pragmatic optimism" and Pollyannaism by learning to control my explanatory style. This mindset is transferable to daily life. I discuss some basics of "learned optimism" in The Athlete's Way:

"You can learn to be optimistic by choosing to take that perspective. You have the choice to decide what your perspective is going to be. Whenever you are angry or negative, you can be assured that it is not only a present state of mind, but also that you have encouraged a habit. Thoughts move along the neural pathways most frequently traveled. By making a decision to see the glass as half-full, you can rewire your brain to be inclined toward a more optimistic explanatory style."

There is lots of empirical evidence suggesting that whether you view the world through a pessimistic or optimistic lens is within the locus of your control.

If you need an evidence-based reason to make an effort to be more optimistic, hopefully, the latest research on optimism being associated with longevity is a source of motivation. In both men and women, the researchers found a dose-dependent association of higher optimism levels at baseline associated with increased longevity (P trend < 0.01).

This study involved more than 70,000 participants who completed a survey to measure their levels of optimism, overall health, and lifestyle habits such as smoking, alcohol use, and diet. One goal of this research was to pinpoint specific psychosocial factors that promote resilient aging across a lifespan. Some study participants were followed for up to three decades (1986–2016).

How was optimism assessed? The researchers evaluated optimism using the Life Orientation Test-Revised in NHS and the Revised Optimism–Pessimism Scale from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 in NAS.

On average, the most optimistic men and women in the study had odds of reaching age 85 that were 50-70 percent greater than the least optimistic study participants. These statistics take demographic differences and lifestyle into consideration. After adjusting for demographics and health conditions, women and men in the highest versus lowest "optimism quartile" had a 14.9 percent longer lifespan.

"While research has identified many risk factors for diseases and premature death, we know relatively less about positive psychosocial factors that can promote healthy aging," first author Lewina Lee said in a statement. "This study has strong public health relevance because it suggests that optimism is one such psychosocial asset that has the potential to extend the human lifespan. Interestingly, optimism may be modifiable using relatively simple techniques or therapies." Lee is a clinical research psychologist at the National Center for PTSD at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in Boston and an assistant professor of psychiatry at BUSM.

As mentioned, this study is correlational and cannot conclude if optimism actually causes exceptional longevity. The million-dollar question remains: Why is optimism associated with longevity?

"Other research suggests that more optimistic people may be able to regulate emotions and behavior as well as bounce back from stressors and difficulties more effectively," co-senior author Laura Kubzansky of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said in a statement.

"Research on the reason why optimism matters so much remains to be done, but the link between optimism and health is becoming more evident," co-senior author Francine Grodstein added. Grodstein is a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as well as a professor of medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

"Given work indicating optimism is modifiable, these findings suggest optimism may provide a valuable target to test for strategies to promote longevity," the authors concluded.

Facebook image: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock


Lewina O. Lee, Peter James, Emily S. Zevon, Eric S. Kim, Claudia Trudel-Fitzgerald, Avron Spiro III, Francine Grodstein, and Laura D. Kubzansky “Optimism Is Associated with Exceptional Longevity in 2 Epidemiologic Cohorts of Men and Women.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (First published: August 26, 2019) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1900712116

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