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The Life-Extending Health Benefits of Optimism

A new large-scale study finds women who maintain a positive outlook on life are less likely to die prematurely.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Doctor Popular/Flickr)

There are many ways to reduce your risk of premature death. New research suggests the standard list — don’t smoke, exercise, eat healthy food — should be expanded to include an additional item: stay optimistic.

A study that followed 70,000 women over eight years found those who maintained a positive attitude were significantly less likely than their pessimistic counterparts to succumb to cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, and infection.

While this is partly explained by the fact that optimists are more likely to engage in healthy behavior, it also provides additional evidence that a hopeful attitude has a direct, positive impact on our bodily systems.

“Our new findings suggest that we should make efforts to boost optimism,” said Eric Kim of Harvard University, co-lead author of the study, which is published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The study complements several pieces of past research, including one study that found optimism can strengthen the immune system, and another that links a positive disposition to better heart health.

A hopeful attitude has a direct, positive impact on our bodily systems.

Kim and his colleagues used data from the Nurses’ Health Study, which has been tracking the health and health-related behavior of a large group of American nurses since 1976. Participants’ optimism level was first measured in 2004, when, as part of their biennial survey, they responded to six statements such as, “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.”

The researchers then recorded how many of the women died between 2006 and 2014, and of what causes. They also took note of a variety of factors that can influence longevity, including age, race, marital status, education level, health conditions (including depression), and health-related behaviors, including diet, physical activity level, and alcohol consumption.

“We found strong and statistically significant associations of increasing levels of optimism with decreasing risk of mortality, including mortality due to each major cause of death, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, and infection,” they report.

The relationship between optimism and cancer mortality was weaker than the other causes of death that were studied. This may reflect the fact certain cancers “appear to be somewhat intractable to many feasible modifications.”

That said, the overall effect of optimism remained strong even after taking into account the aforementioned socioeconomic factors — and even held true after controlling for the women’s health-related behaviors. This suggests that, while the better health habits of optimists certainly play a role in lowering mortality, some other mechanism also appears to be at work.

Indeed, past research has linked optimism with several markers of good health, including a stronger immune response and lower levels of inflammation.

Kim and his colleagues caution that study participants were all women, and the vast majority were white. However, they add that “there is no clear basis for believing that the effects of optimism on health differences by sex or race.”

Now, for some readers, adopting a sunny disposition may seem less doable than permanently losing 50 pounds. But previous research has estimated that our basic level of optimism/pessimism is only about one-quarter inherited. The positive psychology literature offers a number of ways of cultivating an optimistic outlook.

While making that shift may require work and patience, this research shows there are clear benefits to looking on the bright side of life. Who knew the Monty Python wags were health educators?