POSTED OCTOBER 16, 2019, 10:30 AM
David R. Topor, PhD, MS-HPEd , Contributor
What does this new research on optimism tell us?
The study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people who had higher levels of optimism had a longer life span. They also had a greater chance of living past age 85. The researchers analyzed data gleaned from two large population studies: about 70,000 women from the Nurses’ Health Study and about 1,400 men from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study.
The Nurses’ Health Study used items from the Life Orientation Test to assess optimism. The measure asks respondents to rate their level of agreement to several statements about optimism. The Normative Aging Study relied on the Optimism-Pessimism Scale, administered as part of a personality assessment. This scale examines the positive and negative explanations people give for events in their life.
For both men and women, higher levels of optimism were associated with a longer life span and “exceptional longevity,” which the researchers defined as surviving to 85. The study controlled for factors like chronic physical conditions (such as hypertension or high cholesterol) and health behaviors (such as smoking or alcohol use).
There were several limitations to the study results. For example, participants were largely white and had higher socioeconomic status than the general population. These factors may limit whether the findings apply to a wide range of people.
So why might optimism affect longevity? The study wasn’t designed to explain this, but the researchers had several thoughts. While one component of optimism appears to be heritable — that is, tied to our genes — our environment and learning also shape a significant portion. One takeaway is that we can all learn ways to be more optimistic.
How can you become more optimistic?
Whether you’re naturally optimistic or not, you can take certain steps in that direction.