“Choose to be optimistic. It feels better,” the Dalai Lama has said.
It may also lengthen your life. Higher levels of optimism are associated with a longer lifespan and a greater chance of living past 90, according to a new study of nearly 160,000 women of different races and backgrounds.
Healthy lifestyle factors, such as the quality of diet, physical activity, body mass index (BMI), smoking and alcohol consumption, accounted for less than a fourth of the association between longevity and optimism, according to the study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
“Although optimism itself may be patterned by social structural factors, our findings suggest that the benefits of optimism for longevity may hold across racial and ethnic groups,” said lead author Hayami Koga, a postdoctorial student at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in a statement.
“Optimism may be an important target of intervention for longevity across diverse groups,” Koga added.
A growing body of research
This isn’t the first study to find a strong link between longevity and looking on the bright side of life. A 2019 study found both men and women with the highest levels of optimism had an average 11% to 15% longer life span than people who practiced little positive thinking. In fact, the highest-scoring optimists were most likely to live to age 85 or beyond.
The results held true, the study found, even when socioeconomic status, health conditions, depression, smoking, social engagement, poor diet and alcohol use were considered.
Optimism doesn’t mean ignoring life’s stressors, experts say. But when negative things happen, optimistic people are less likely to blame themselves and more likely to see the obstacle as temporary or even positive. Optimists also believe they have control over their fate and can create opportunities for good things to happen in the future.
Being optimist also improves your health, studies find. Prior research has found a direct link between optimism and healthier diet and exercise behaviors, as well as better cardiac health, a stronger immune system, better lung function, and lower mortality risk, among others.
You too can be an optimist
Studies of twins have found only about 25% of our optimism is programmed by our genes. The rest is up to us and how we respond to life’s lemons. If you’re more likely to turn sour when stressed, don’t worry. It turns out you can train your brain to be more positive.
One of the most effective ways to increase optimism is called the “Best Possible Self” method, according to a meta-analysis of existing studies. In this intervention, you imagine yourself in a future in which you have achieved all your life goals and all of your problems have been resolved.
Begin to write for 15 minutes about specifics you have accomplished and spent five minutes imaging how that reality looks and feels. Practicing this daily can significantly improve your positive feelings, experts say.
In an 2011 study, students practiced the Best Possible Self exercise for 15 minutes once a week for eight weeks. Not only did they feel more positive, the feelings lasted for about six months.
Another way to bolster optimism is to keep a journal dedicated to only positive experiences you experienced that day. Over time, that focus on the positive can reshape your outlook, experts say.
Taking a few minutes each day to write down what makes you thankful can also improve your outlook on life. A number of studies have shown that practicing gratefulness improves positive coping skills by breaking the typical negative thinking style and substituting optimism. Counting blessings even lessened problem behavior in adolescents.
Like exercise, optimism exercises will need to be practiced on a regular basis to keep the brain’s positive outlook in good shape, experts say. But isn’t a longer, happier, more positive life worth the effort?
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