Want to live longer? You might want to try improving your outlook on life.
New research shows that people who are more optimistic may actually live longer. In a study of nearly 160,000 women, people with the highest optimism ratings had a 5.4% longer lifespan than those considered less optimistic.
“Most research suggests that individuals who are more optimistic are not unrealistic,” says lead investigator Hayami Koga, MD.
Instead, Koga says, they find ways to see the potential for more positive things to happen in the future. In part, she says, this may be because people often consider optimism to increase the ability to solve problems and tackle challenges.
A More Diverse Study
Although not the first study to link optimism to longevity, most previous work focused primarily on non-Hispanic white people. Other researchers, for example, previously reported that optimism was associated with a 15% longer lifespan among mainly white women who were followed for up to 10 years.
The current study, published in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, is among the first to link optimism to longevity in a racially and ethnically diverse population.
Koga and colleagues studied 159,255 women participating in the Women's Health Initiative. The women were 83% non-Hispanic white, 9% Black, 4% Hispanic/Latina, 3% Asian, less than 1% American Indian or Alaska native, and the remainder self-identified as "other."
The women were ages 50 to 79 when they enrolled in the project between 1993 and 1998.
The investigators considered other factors that could lead to a longer life span, including age, education, marital status, annual family income, mental health, and more. They also evaluated how lifestyle factors could affect the results.
Slightly more than 40% of the women -- 64,301 -- died during the 26 years they were followed.
Overall, after adjusting for other factors, women considered to be in the top 25% most optimistic lived an average 4.4 years longer than women in the lowest 25%. These results varied somewhat by racial/ethnic group, but not significantly.
In a smaller analysis of 55,885 women, 53% lived to age 90 or older. Again, more optimism was associated with a greater likelihood for this “exceptional longevity.”
Lifestyle had a moderate effect on optimism and longevity. The researchers created a lifestyle score that looked at five factors -- diet quality, physical activity, body mass index, tobacco use, and alcohol consumption. They found this score greatly influenced a person’s optimism.
Not Just Lack of Depression
Koga and colleagues noted that earlier studies have linked regular exercise to a gain of 0.2 to 4.4 years of life.
"Thus, our findings suggest the impact of optimism may be comparable to that of exercise," they wrote.
“We hope that these results will highlight the value to focus on positive psychological factors, or resources, as possible new ways of promoting longevity and healthy aging especially if we see that these benefits are seen across racial and ethnic groups,” Koga says.
'A Modifiable Health Asset'
The study offers new evidence “for the relationship between higher levels of optimism and greater longevity among postmenopausal women of diverse ethnic and racial identity," says Danijela Gasevic, MD, who called the study “important.”
Optimism is a modifiable health asset, meaning it is something we can control for ourselves, Gasevic says.
Gasevic says there are limitations. For example, she says, the study only included women, and the lifestyle risk score researchers created may underestimate the impact of lifestyle.
"However, this study is a good and necessary stepping stone to further elucidate potential racial or ethnic disparities in the association between optimism and longevity among older adults and contribution of lifestyle factors to this relationship,” she says.
The benefits of optimism likely reach beyond longevity, says Gasevic, who was also senior author of an October 2021 study in Psychosomatic Medicine that looked at the connection between optimism and mortality.
"Higher levels of optimism have also been linked with better coping skills when dealing with stress and life challenges,” she says.
Becoming More Optimistic
More research is needed to see if “increasing optimism can in turn promote health and longevity,” Koga says. “We know that optimism is generally fairly stable throughout adulthood and while it can shift somewhat in the short term in response to different circumstances, over longer periods it tends to remain at similar levels even in the face of very challenging life events (including a serious health condition).”
Working on optimism may helpful for people, Jeremy Jacobs, MD, says.
What is interesting, he says, is that people may be able to change certain traits – like optimism – to improve their health.
The implications of these kinds of findings, Jacobs says, is that efforts to change your outlook may have long-term benefits.
“Of course, this awaits to be proven in real life,” says Jacobs, lead author of the September 2021 Jerusalem Longevity Study, which found a benefit to optimism beyond age 85.