You are either one type of person or the other in life. An optimist or pessimist. Do you see the glass as half-full or half-empty? Turns out, your answer can have a great impact on your health and mortality according to new research in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Optimism may help lengthen your life. In this new study, positive thinking was associated with a longer lifespan and a greater chance of living past 90. Researchers looked at over 160,000 women participants from the Women’s Health Initiative of different races and backgrounds and found that the benefits of optimism for longevity held across all racial and ethnic groups.
Keeping a positive attitude and looking at the future with rose-colored glasses has been associated with improved health outcomes many times. In this study, they found that optimism was associated with an extended lifespan and pessimism was associated with a shortened lifespan. After adjusting for demographics, chronic conditions, and depression, women with the highest optimism compared to women with the highest pessimism had a 10% increased likelihood of living longer.
People who have more positive thinking have been found to take more proactive steps to promote their health and are more likely to exercise, eat healthily, and not smoke. The connection between these behaviors and optimism likely go together. Taking better care of yourself likely helps you feel more optimistic and feeling more positive makes you want to take better care of yourself.
An older study from Harvard found similar results. It looked at women’s health over a course of eight years, those with an optimistic outlook on life were found to live longer and reduced their risk of dying from several major causes of death, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, and infection.
The data for this study was from the 2004 to 2012 Nurses’ Health Study – a study of 70,000 women, a long-running health study tracking women’s health every two years through detailed surveys. The research looks at participants’ levels of optimism, and other factors that play a role in how optimism may impact mortality – including race, high blood pressure, diet, and physical activity level.
It’s interesting that the most optimistic women – the top quartile – had a nearly 30 percent overall lower risk of dying from any diseases studied compared with the least optimistic women comprised of the lower quartile. In all, the most optimistic women had a 16 percent lower risk of dying from cancer, 38 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease, 39 percent lower chance of dying from stroke, 38 percent lower risk of dying from respiratory disease, and 52 percent lower chance of dying from infection.
The study’s authors said that having an optimistic outlook, a general expectation that good things will happen in life, may help people live longer.
Now, don’t take this research the wrong way. Being optimistic doesn’t only happen to people with less stress or people that ignore life stressors. People who are more optimistic still have negative things happen to them. They are just less likely to blame others and are more likely to see an obstacle as temporary or even positive when life hands them lemons. They often believe that they have control over the situations in their lives and they have the power to create positive opportunities in the future.
If you tend to be more pessimistic, don’t get yourself down. Studies of twins have found that only 25% of your likelihood to be optimistic is dependent on your genes. The researchers found that you can improve your feelings of optimism with writing exercises and cognitive-behavioral strategies where you take a negative thought and work it into a positive thought.
Cognitive-behavioral strategies are often used by therapists. They help people identify an unhelpful thought or behavior and alter it to help them achieve their goals. It is thought to help improve emotional regulation and coping strategies. Some simple CBT tools include journaling, relaxed breathing, challenging faulty thinking or cognitive distortions, progressive muscle relaxation, and cognitive restructuring by reframing thoughts.
Exercise has been shown to help improve longevity with studies showing that regular exercise adds 0.4-4.2 years to your life. This study shows that optimism may be comparable to exercise in regards to adding extra years. Put the two together, exercise and positive thinking and you have a winning combination!
Focusing on your strengths and practicing gratitude has also been shown to help build more optimism. Try this activity from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Reflect on your personal strengths such as kindness, creativity, etc. Find a way each day to use that strength for a week. The more you use your strengths and see the positive effects of your actions the better you will feel. Try keeping a gratitude journal where you list the blessings you are thankful for. Spending a few minutes jotting down in your journal every night is an easy step you can take. Keep it simple such as a delicious meal, a call from a friend, or even a beautiful day.
Another way to increase your positivity is called the “Best Possible Self” method. With this method, you imagine yourself reaching all of your life goals and resolving all of your problems in the future. After you have pictured this scenario, write for 15 minutes about the specifics of what you accomplished and spend some time imagining what that really looks and feels like. Experts say doing this daily can help improve your feelings of positivity.
My takeaway is this: you can choose to be happy or sad when you wake up in the morning. It’s up to you to have a good day or a bad day. I guess I have always been of the mindset to think on the bright side of things. Never dwelling (or, at least for too long) on the downside. Guess that type of thinking will bode me well health-wise. It has for Seattle who just celebrated her 90th birthday this year!
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