There seems to be more fear-based news and reporting these days – which could be attributed to the “If it bleeds, it leads” selection criteria for news reporting by the mainstream media, because the amygdala – the “alarm button” in our brain – calls our attention to whatever triggers it. And all media want to be read or seen or listened to. Fear causes our blood pressure to rise and leads us to unwise choices. It lowers our quality-of-life experience.
Here’s a new piece of research about the opposite condition, optimism, and how it improves both our quality-of-life experience and our longevity.
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People with higher optimism more likely to live ‘exceptionally long lives’
Medical News Today
27 August 2019
Fact checked by Isabel Godfrey
New research finds that individuals with higher optimism tend to live longer and also have greater odds of living 85 years and more.
A recent PNAS paper describes how the researchers assessed the link between higher optimism and longer lifespan, with a particular focus on the chances of reaching “exceptional longevity.”
The team carried out the study because most research on exceptional longevity has tended to focus on the effect of “biomedical factors.”
More recently, however, scientists have become interested in the role of nonbiological factors. First and corresponding author Lewina O. Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, says …
“While research has identified many
risk factors for diseases and prema-
ture death, we know relatively less
about positive psychosocial factors
that can promote healthy aging.”
She and her colleagues defined optimism as the “general expectation that good things will happen or the belief that the future will be favorable because one can control important outcomes.”
They suggest that because it may be possible to alter optimism using relatively straightforward therapeutic techniques, their findings have strong implications for public health. Lee adds …
“Our study contributes to scientific knowledge
on health assets that may protect against
mortality risk and promote resilient aging.”
What the study found
The NHS data covered 10 years of follow-up between 2004 and 2014, while the NAS data included 30 years of follow-up between 1986 and 2016.
As a routine part of both projects, all participants completed regular health surveys that included questions about diet, alcohol intake, smoking, and other health-related behaviors.
The questionnaires that they completed at the start of their respective follow-ups also included items on optimism. Although the two projects used different measures for assessing optimism, the authors note that “prior work has demonstrated [them] to be correlated.”
As an example, one of the six questions on optimism that the NHS participants completed asked them to indicate, on a five-point scale, the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, “Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad.”
Of the participants, 13% of the females died during the 10 years of their follow-up, and 71% of the males died in the 30 years of their follow-up.
When the researchers analyzed the data,
they found that the females and males
with the highest levels of optimism at
the start of follow-up lived on average
11–15% longer than those with the
lowest levels of optimism.
In addition, the females and males with the highest levels of optimism had a 50–70% greater likelihood of living until their 85th birthday and beyond.
The team found that the associations held even when they adjusted the results to account for the effects of age, educational achievement, persistent diseases, depression, physical activity, diet, use of alcohol, smoking, and visits to the doctor.
Potential reasons for the effect of optimism
Although the researchers did not investigate how optimism might help people live longer, they discuss some plausible reasons.
One potential reason is that people with higher optimism are more likely to engage in behaviors that promote health, such as not smoking and being more physically active. Both of these behaviors can lengthen lifespan.
Another factor that scientists have linked to higher optimism is the ability to regulate emotions more effectively. People who can do this recover from stressors more quickly. The authors wrote …
“Considering psychosocial pathways,
more optimistic individuals may experi-
ence less extreme emotional reactivity to,
and faster recovery from, acute stressors.”
“Together with other work, our findings
suggest optimism serves as a psychological
resource that promotes health and longevity.”
Approaches that boost psychological resources would be a departure from the mainstream methods that often seek to reduce “or repair psychological deficits.”
Some studies have shown that relatively short interventions can help people raise their level of optimism. These studies have looked at a range of interventions, including meditation, brief exercises that involve writing things down, and intensive cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
The authors conclude that there is a need for further research that addresses the longer term effects of such interventions. Could the resulting improvements in optimism lead to lasting changes in health behavior?
“We hope that our findings will inspire
further research on interventions to
enhance positive health assets that may
improve the public’s health with aging.”
Lewina O. Lee, Ph.D.
• • • • • • • •
The more you can find optimism and joy, the more beautiful the world becomes and the more you feel accepted in it. Life is meant to be lived to its fullest. Optimism makes it easier to achieve that.
When you Google “Sustainability” or even “Net Zero Sustainability,” virtually everything focuses on energy … such as the cost of energy, the effect of various energy sources on climate, etc. While energy is important, it’s only one aspect of sustainability. Technology now enables us to live in complete harmony with Earth – and live well … and actually for less money. But …
Sustainability is more than survival. It must include our quality-of-life experience. And optimism, as this research illustrates, enhances both our quality-of-life experience and our longevity.
How to improve our optimism?
Take a few minutes near the end of each day, by yourself or with someone with whom you’re close, to express gratitude, genuine gratitude, for those things that occurred that day for which you are truly grateful. (Some days, big things jump out. Some days only minor things. But something always surfaces.) Also, find beauty in the in-between moments, e.g. the smile on a child’s face, the beautiful shape of a cloud, a leaf on the ground with beautiful colors, or a beautiful sunset.
These activities calm the nervous system and open the mind up to possibilities … both of which lead to greater optimism.
On a personal note …
A few years ago, as my spouse and I were readying for a day-long hike, the skies opened with day-long rain. While I’ve no special wisdom, we asked what we could do that would actually be more fun than our day-long hike. And within ten minutes, we came up with an alternative that was actually better. Since then, every time something arises that ruins what we were going to do, we’ve consciously asked that question, and we’ve consistently come up with something that’s been better than our initial plan.
In the film, “The Hit Man’s Bodyguard,” during a bantering dialogue between the main characters, the hit man said, “When life gives you shit, you make Kool-Aid.” While his comment was a passing comical one-liner, it actually represented the approach my spouse and I have been using.
The approach has consistently given us a better quality-of-life experience. And without downplaying our need to live in harmony with Earth, a better quality-of-life experience beats a lower utility bill, every day. And together, you have truly “sustainable living.”