Study: Boosting Your Joie de Vivre May Help You Live Longer

Sustained "joie de vivre" (joy of living) is linked to increased longevity.

Posted Dec 14, 2016

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

A new study from the University College London (UCL) suggests that the more you are able to enjoy life, the longer you’ll live. In fact, the researchers found a dose-response association between feeling a sustained sense of satisfaction and life enjoyment over the course of several years was linked to a reduction in all causes of mortality. The December 2016 findings from UCL were published online yesterday in The BMJ.

In recent months, there's been a groundswell of reports linking subjective well-being—as marked by a sense of joie de vivre (joy of living), having a positive outlook about the future, and a lack of chronic pessimism—with lower morbidity and greater longevity.

As an example, last week researchers at Harvard University reported that people who are optimistic and believe that 'good things will happen in the future' tend to live longer than their less-optimistic counterparts. This study appeared online Dec. 7, 2016, in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The More You’re Able to Enjoy Life, The Longer You May Live

Based on growing evidence in recent years that there is a correlation between having a positive outlook on life and longevity, the UCL researchers tested 9,365 men and women aged 50 and older (average age 63) who were taking part in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). Each study participant was asked to self-assess his or her levels of life enjoyment at two-year intervals between 2002 and 2006. The associations with mortality were analyzed through 2013.

For the record: While analyzing the data, the researchers adjusted for a wide range of factors that could inherently make someone's life more or less enjoyable such as underlying health conditions, wealth, levels of education, clinical depression, etc. Obviously, if you’re living in poverty or with an illness, it’s more difficult to feel upbeat and positive about your life circumstances.

Based on various responses to four questions about self-reported life enjoyment, the participants were graded on a continuum between 'never or rarely' experiencing any joie de vivre to experiencing life enjoyment 'sometimes or often.’

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that a total of 2,264 (24%) reported zero high levels of enjoyment in life, 1,833 (20%) reported one episode of high enjoyment, 2,063 (22%) reported having two, and 3,205 (34%) reported having three episodes of high enjoyment.

In the discussion of their paper, the authors write, “A graded effect was apparent, with progressively higher mortality among people with fewer reports of high enjoyment. In the fully adjusted model, the hazard was reduced by 17% among people giving two reports of high enjoyment of life, and by 24% in those giving three reports.” The researchers conclude that a sustained level of life enjoyment over a four-year period was systematically related to a lower risk of death. 

Again, the authors stress that this is an observational study. So, it’s impossible to draw causal conclusions. Nonetheless, they believe these results "add a new dimension to understanding the significance of subjective well-being for physical health outcomes by documenting a dose-response association with sustained well-being."

Harvard Researchers Link Optimism with Increased Life Expectancy

The new report linking joie de vivre and longevity from UCL corroborates the findings of the recent study on optimism and longevity conducted by Eric S. Kim and colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health mentioned earlier. In an abstract for their December 2016 study, Kim et al. said,

"Growing evidence has linked positive psychological attributes like optimism to a lower risk of poor health outcomes, especially cardiovascular disease. It has been demonstrated in randomized trials that optimism can be learned. If associations between optimism and broader health outcomes are established, it may lead to novel interventions that improve public health and longevity.”

Kim and his team analyzed data from 70,000 women between 2004-2012. The researchers focused primarily on each participant's levels of optimism. They also looked at other factors that might play a role in how optimism might affect someone's odds of dying prematurely based on factors such as high blood pressure, diet, and physical activity. In a discussion of the findings, the researchers state,

"Optimists appear to differ on numerous processes that are critically important to a broad spectrum of health outcomes. It has been shown in several studies that optimism is associated with a healthier lipid profile, lower levels of inflammatory markers, higher levels of serum antioxidants, and as noted above, better immune responsiveness.

Other investigations have suggested a slower rate of telomere shortening over time, healthier autonomic function, and higher levels of heart rate variability. Indeed, results from these reports of associations between optimism and a wide array of health factors are consistent with our finding that optimism is associated with multiple causes of death."

Kim and colleagues found that the most optimistic women had a 38 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease; 39 percent lower risk of dying from stroke; 38 percent lower risk of dying from respiratory disease; 16 percent lower risk of dying from cancer; and a 52 percent lower risk of dying from infection.

Even Optimists Have Moments of Intense Pessimism

Another valuable study on optimism and pessimism was published yesterday by researchers from the University of California, Riverside (UCR). This research offers a valuable window into the thin line between being a “Pollyanna” (who sugar-coats everything and never takes off his or her 'rose-tinted glasses') and someone who is pragmatic when assessing the reality of terrible situations in life.

Interestingly, the UCR researchers found no differences between optimists and pessimists when it comes to the initial feelings of dread that creep in when someone braces for potentially bad news. The December 2016 study, "Even Optimists Get the Blues: Inter-Individual Consistency in the Tendency to Brace for the Worst," was published yesterday in the Journal of Personality.

In a statement to University of California, co-author Kate Sweeny, psychology professor at UCR, described the findings of her study,  

"Although this tendency to brace oneself for potentially bad news is common, intuition might suggest that some people are more likely to brace than others—in particular, happy-go-lucky optimists would seem immune to the anxiety and second-guessing that typically arise as the decisive moment draws near.

[But] counter to intuition, optimists were not immune to feeling a rise in pessimism at the moment of truth. In fact, not a single study showed a difference between optimists and pessimists in their tendency to brace for the worst. Fortunately, it seems that even the most ardent optimists can temper their positive outlook when it pays to do so."

Quotations to Help Boost Your Joie de Vivre and Pragmatic Optimism

All the scientific data on the benefits of having a positive attitude, enjoying life, and being optimistic is useless if you can't put this empirical evidence into action by increasing your own levels of daily joie de vivre. The good news is that making a conscious decision to see the glass as half-full and looking for a silver lining (even in the worst of times) is usually in the locus of your control. 

As an example, throughout my athletic career (and beyond), I've kept my antennae up for quotations that hold a nugget of wisdom that helps me maintain a positive outlook without being a Pollyanna. Whenever my inner voice starts grumbling "life sucks"... I immediately start reciting an inspirational quotation, which becomes like a mantra that helps me "fake it till I make it."

For decades, I've been collecting uplifting quotations that resonate with me on a visceral level. Anytime I stumble on a quote that strikes a chord, I transcribe the words onto a fluorescent green note card. I keep big stacks of these note cards on a nightstand next to my bed. Sometimes, before falling asleep, I shuffle through the index cards and practice committing each quotation to long-term memory so I can recite the words in case of an emergency or emotional meltdown.

As an ultra-endurance athlete, reciting quotations or humming a song were two of the most valuable tools I had for staying optimistic over the course of a grueling race (such as running 135-miles nonstop through Death Valley in July). You learn quickly as a long distance runner that being pessimistic is guaranteed to slow you down and dramatically reduce your odds of reaching the finish line. This is a metaphor for life and mortality. 

This morning, after reading the latest empirical evidence on the benefits of self-perceived enjoyment of life, I decided to compile a list of some of the quotations that have helped me kickstart feelings of joie de vivre and buoy my spirits whenever I've felt hopeless or full of dread. If you're feeling cynical or pessimistic about your future these days, hopefully, these quotations will help you "fake it till you make it" and boost your daily joie de vivre, too.  

“I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.” ― Groucho Marx

“There's no harm in hoping for the best as long as you're prepared for the worst.” ― Stephen King

“Exercise ferments the humors, casts them into their proper channels, throws off redundancies, and helps nature in those secret distributions, without which the body cannot subsist in its vigor, nor the soul act with cheerfulness.” ― Joseph Addison

“I am fundamentally an optimist . . . Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” ― Nelson Mandela

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” ― Noam Chomsky

“Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

“You cannot play with the animal in you without becoming wholly animal, play with falsehood without forfeiting your right to truth, play with cruelty without losing your sensitivity of mind. He who wants to keep his garden tidy doesn’t reserve a plot for the weeds.” ― Dag Hammarskjöld

“A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.” ― Herm Albright

“Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music—the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself . . . Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate, or despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy, and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such.” ― Henry Miller

“When you get in a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” ― Harriet Beecher Stowe

“I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.” ― Martha Washington

“Why should we think upon things that are lovely? Because thinking determines life. It is a common habit to blame life upon the environment. Environment modifies life but does not govern life. The soul is stronger than its surroundings.” ― William James

“Do not think of today's failures, but of the success that may come tomorrow. You have set yourselves a difficult task, but you will succeed if you persevere. And you will find a joy in overcoming obstacles. Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost.” ― Helen Keller

“You’re not going to make me have a bad day. If there’s oxygen on earth and I’m breathing, it’s going to be a good day.” ― Cotton Fitzsimmons

“Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in. Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This new day is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on the yesterdays.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

“In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.” ― Edith Wharton

"The sun is shining—the sun is shining. That is the magic. The flowers are growing—the roots are stirring. That is the magic. Being alive is the magic—being strong is the magic…it’s in every one of us." ― Frances Hodgson Burnett 

References

Zaninotto Paola, Wardle Jane, Steptoe Andrew. Sustained enjoyment of life and mortality at older ages: analysis of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing BMJ 2016;355:i6267

Eric S. Kim, Kaitlin A. Hagan, Francine Grodstein, Dawn L. DeMeo, Immaculata De Vivo, Laura D. Kubzansky; Optimism and Cause-Specific Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study. Am J Epidemiol 2016 1-9. doi: 10.1093/aje/kww182

Kate Sweeny, Angelica Falkenstein. Even Optimists Get the Blues: Inter-Individual Consistency in the Tendency to Brace for the Worst. Journal of Personality, 2016; DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12289