Does having a sunny outlook help you live longer or better? It’s not easy to prove that positive or negative attitudes affect health. Yet there is a body of evidence that optimistic people have a lower risk of disease and premature death than pessimistic ones.
Most research finds that a positive attitude is associated with longer life, though it certainly does not guarantee it. In a 23-year study done in a small town in Ohio, people over 50 who viewed aging as a positive experience lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those who did not—a big gap. The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, controlled for such possible confounding factors as race, gender, state of health, morale, and loneliness.
Also see: Two Cheers for Optimism.
Benefits of optimism
Other research has linked an optimistic attitude with better health. A 2009 review published in theAnnals of Behavioral Medicine analyzed 83 studies on optimism. Optimism showed the greatest benefit in those studies that measured good health by volunteers’ subjective assessment—how well they said they felt. But optimism was also a significant predictor of better health even in research that looked solely at objective measurements such as mortality or outcomes after heart attack, cancer, and other serious health problems.
A 2016 study published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes looked at how optimism and gratitude may have affected the health of people admitted to the hospital for acute coronary problems such as heart attack or unstable angina. Six months after hospitalization, optimistic patients were more physically active and less likely to have been readmitted to the hospital than more pessimistic ones.
Here are a few ways that personality might alter health and life expectancy:
- Chronic frustration and anger could lead to smoking, excessive drinking, or poor eating habits. An optimistic person might be more motivated to change bad habits or not have them in the first place.
- Optimism might lead a person to seek and follow medical advice and to live in ways that help to prevent illness.
- It’s possible that optimism has a positive impact on the immune system. But studies so far have been inconclusive.
External factors matter, too
A bit of pessimism has its uses. If you think you may get sick, for instance, you may take better care of yourself. And there’s one large unanswered question: Does optimism promote health, or is it that healthy people are more likely to be optimistic? External factors play a role, too, including education, race, genetics, gender, access to health care, and, perhaps most powerfully, wealth. Luck is also a factor.
Still, it can’t hurt to be as positive as your circumstances allow. Do all you can to enjoy life. Take care of yourself. Eat right. Don’t smoke. Exercise daily. Actually, it’s a good idea to do all this no matter your outlook on life.