Attention glass-half-full types: Staying optimistic may help you live longer and better than your more pessimistic counterparts.
Researchers from Boston University came to that conclusion after following 233 men over 22 years.
They reported that the study participants who had a more optimistic attitude had higher levels of emotional well-being and experienced stress differently and less frequently than those who were more pessimistic.
The study also showed that the optimistic participants reported more frequent positive moods and lower negative moods.
“This study tests one possible explanation, assessing if more optimistic people handle daily stress more constructively and therefore enjoy better emotional well-being,” Lewina O. Lee, PhD, a study author and clinical psychologist at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder at the VA Boston Healthcare System, and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, said in a press release.
“Stress is known to have a negative impact on our health. By looking at whether optimistic people handle day-to-day stressors differently, our findings add to knowledge about how optimism may promote good health as people age,” she added.
The benefits of positive thinking
The new study adds to a body of research linking optimism with better health outcomes.
A 2019 study by the same research team found that the most optimistic men and women lived 11 to 15 percent longer than the least optimistic people, even after controlling for confounding factors such as chronic disease, educational attainment, and health behaviors like exercise, diet, and alcohol use.
“In the 21st century, a lot of evidence has emerged on optimism and positivity and how they can influence immune systems, brain function, and physical health,” Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University, told Healthline.
“Too much stress and negative states of mind weaken the neuroendocrine and immune responses of the body, causing vulnerability to disease or weaker recovery from diseases as the body cannot mount a strong response to stress and disease,” he added. “It is a complex interplay of disease/stressor vulnerability, perception of disease/stress, and the reaction of our body to stressors/disease that are interlinked.”
However, while optimism may be linked to some better health outcomes, this doesn’t tell the whole story.
“It’s helpful to remind ourselves that a more negative outlook doesn’t necessarily doom people to a shorter life,” Dr. Jacob Hascalovici, the chief medical officer at chronic pain telemedicine company Clearing, told Healthline. “Longevity is a complicated field of study, and some studies indicate that apparent pessimism may also have a purpose.”
Keeping on the sunny side of life
That said, if you want to work on a rosier outlook, there are some helpful strategies you can employ.
“Find and focus on behaviors toward positive outcomes that can be accomplished and experienced in the future, and behavior and situations that can be changed versus those that are more fixed or rigid,” said Joel Milam, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics with the University of California at Irvine Program in Public Health.
One suggestion is to “reduce exposure to news/mass media, which tend to present negative situations as pervasive/universal, permanent, and uncontrollable,” Milam told Healthline. “These situational perspectives undermine optimism.”
Focusing on mindfulness and intention may help, too.
“We have to be intentionally optimistic,” Gregory Scott Brown, MD, a psychiatrist, mental health writer, and author of “The Self-Healing Mind,” told Healthline.
“There are two sides to every coin, and sometimes it’s just easier to focus on ways things aren’t going well. Sometimes, I begin my appointments by asking patients to tell me three things that are going well in their life. It can completely change the tone of the next hour of our conversation,” he said.
“Imagine if we began every day with intentional gratitude for the good things in our life,” Brown said. “I suspect it would positively benefit our physical and mental health.”