How Being Optimistic Can Actually Help You Live Longer, According to Science
In 2019, researched from Boston University found evidence suggesting that optimistic people live longer than pessimists. The researchers found that those who scored higher on an optimism assessment were more likely to live past the age of 85. The study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, followed women enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study and men in the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study over a long-term period. The women had been followed since 1976, and in 2004 they completed a six-question optimism assessment. Their survival was recorded until 2014. The researchers had followed the men since 1961, and in 1986 the men completed a baseline assessment with 263 true or false statements about their experiences and their outlook on life. People with higher optimism levels at the start of the study were more likely to be physically active and less likely to have health conditions, such as depression and diabetes. But even when researchers looked beyond those factors, there was still a connection between optimism and a longer life span.
There is a growing recognition that optimism and positivity influence our health. Not only does a brighter outlook tend to lead to healthier habits, but there is also significant research to suggest that looking at the glass half full can help ward off chronic diseases, such as heart disease, and add years to our lives.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine found that people with a family history of heart disease who had a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within five to 25 years than those with a more negative outlook. The finding held even in people with family history who had the most risk factors for coronary artery disease. The study included 1,483 healthy people with siblings who had experienced some sort of coronary event (including heart attack and sudden cardiac death) before age 60. The study participants were followed for 25 years and filled out surveys about their well-being, life satisfaction, anxiety levels, mood and level of health concern. "The siblings at highest risk for coronary artery disease, who had more positive well-being, were 50% less likely to have a coronary artery disease event," says Lisa R. Yanek, M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine and co-director of the GeneSTAR Research Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who led the 2013 study. "We are especially interested in anything that may reduce risk for the people who are at highest risk for disease."
There is a chicken-and-egg paradox at play with the research surrounding optimism and health, points out William Lamson, Ph.D., a psychologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian. "[Optimists] tend to be more consistent in their healthy habits. They tend to get better sleep and to actually eat more fruits and vegetables. Now is this a function of [them being] so optimistic that they are hopeful and they think this is helpful for them, so they live in this way? Or is it these healthy behaviors that are actually driving these health benefits?"
It may be due to what is going on in an optimist's brain versus a pessimist's. "If we're tending to look at a future and we're kind of seeing brightness, we're tending to look at life events and we're not seeing adversity, we're not seeing doom or danger. And we're kind of hopeful about that, we're going to have a little bit more serotonin," says Lamson. Serotonin is the hormone that stabilizes our moods and contributes to our overall feelings of well-being. It functions as a neurotransmitter that carries signals between nerve cells along the central nervous system. Not only does serotonin regulate our mood, it helps our health in other ways, from facilitating sleep to promoting blood clotting to aiding digestion.
How do you go about crafting an optimistic outlook? Lamson suggests that simple everyday things, such as going outside, scheduling Zoom calls with loved ones or even scheduling other daily activities, can build a routine that helps people look at the glass as half full. "If I can get all of my patients to do one thing, it would be just taking a walk or exercising three times a week," says Lamson. Jessica Stern, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health, finds that gratitude journaling helps her feel nourished and reminds her of the moments in her life that make her happy.
Promising research also suggests that certain foods can have a direct impact on mental health and mood. "There is evidence that bacteria in the gut—there's more bacteria there than there are human cells in a body—produce neurochemicals like serotonin. Some studies indicate that the gut is actually making the vast majority of the serotonin for our body," says Ginger Hultin, M.S., R.D., the Seattle-based author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep. Hultin explains that gut bacteria thrive in an environment where fibrous foods are moving through, so think lots of vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils and fruit. Bananas in particular are a great snack. They contain fiber as well as complex carbohydrates, potassium, vitamin C and vitamin B6. "B6 is important to brain health because it is essential for the production of the hormone serotonin," says Hultin. "Other foods high in B6 include avocados, pistachios, sweet potatoes, tofu and meat."
While loading up on brain-friendly nutrients can help, stress can lead to some food habits that do more harm than good. Who hasn't reached for something sweet or salty when they're feeling stressed or anxious? However, multiple studies have found a connection between foods high in refined sugars and worsening symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression. Hultin cautions that it's not as if you eat one of these foods and your brain takes immediate damage. "Many of these outcomes are longer term—the overconsumption of highly processed food over time causing high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes. All can cause blood flow issues and more negative outcomes in brain health," says Hultin. "I guide my clients to looking at their overall dietary pattern over time rather than a one-food-at-a-time approach."
Beyond lifestyle tweaks, evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, are the bread and butter of strengthening mental health not just to look on the bright side, but to manage life stressors that can trigger negative health outcomes. "What I tell people is that therapy is proactive or offensive rather than being reactive or defensive," says Stern, who adds that therapy is a way to strengthen one's toolbox to weather life's stresses.
Stern hopes that if we can apply a new narrative to the concept of therapy, it can destigmatize the practice. "And so rather than thinking about [therapy] as a way of mitigating or minimizing risk or weakness, instead think about it as building strength, building muscle, building healthy dental care, which can be preventative in the long run," says Stern. "Oftentimes we think about mental health as a way to fix issues or to come back from a bad state that we're in. And what I really like about this concept of focusing on optimism and on the psychology is that it allows us to think about our mental health from a strength-based approach and a preventative approach. I like to think about it as sort of learning to dance in the rain. We might not be able to control the rain or the weather at all, but if we learn to dance in the rain, it makes life easier and makes us feel more prepared to navigate any type of unexpected situation."
This article first appeared in EatingWell, Anti-Aging.