Reasons to be cheerful: optimists live longer, says study

Reasons to be cheerful: optimists live longer, says study

People who have a rosy outlook on the world may live healthier, longer lives because they have fewer stressful events to cope with, new research suggests.

Scientists found that while optimists reacted to, and recovered from, stressful situations in much the same way as pessimists, the optimists fared better emotionally because they had fewer stressful events in their daily lives.

How optimists minimise their dose of stress is unclear, but the researchers believe they either avoid arguments, lost keys, traffic jams and other irritations, or simply fail to perceive them as stressful in the first place.

Previous studies have found evidence that optimists live longerand healthier lives, but researchers do not fully understand why having a glass-half-full attitude might contribute to healthy ageing.

“Given prior work linking optimism to longevity, healthy ageing, and lower risks of major diseases, it seemed like a logical next step to study whether optimism might protect against the effects of stress among older adults,” said Dr Lewina Lee, a clinical psychologist at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System and assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University.

Lee and her colleagues analysed information provided by 233 men who were at least 21 years old when they enrolled in the US Veterans Affairs Normative Ageing Study between 1961 and 1970. Surveys in the 1980s and 90s assessed the men’s levels of optimism.

Between 2002 and 2010, they completed up to three eight-day-long diary entries that recorded their mood and any stressful situations they encountered.

The researchers suspected that the optimists might bounce back more swiftly than pessimists, and return to a good mood faster following a stressful event. But the data did not bear this out.

“We found that more optimistic men reported having fewer daily stressors, which partially explained their lower levels of negative mood,” Lee said.

“That suggested to us that perhaps more optimistic men either limited their exposure to stressful situations, or that they were less likely to perceive or label situations as stressful.”

Although the study published in the Journals of Gerontology focused on older men, Lee said she expected the findings to hold for older women too. “Less is known about age differences in the role of optimism in health,” she added.

Levels of optimism or pessimism tend to be fairly stable across people’s lives, but Lee believes there are ways to foster a more rosy outlook for those who want to.

“One way to become more optimistic is to develop an awareness of how we internally react to or judge a situation,” she said.

“Oftentimes our automatic reaction involves a negative evaluation, or a worst-case scenario. It will be useful to catch ourselves doing that, and then try to come up with different ways of approaching the situation.

“A more optimistic thought does not mean being Pollyanna-ish or ignoring risks, which is a common misconception about optimism. It may involve acknowledging our strengths, past examples of success, and areas over which we have control, so that we can arrive at a more positive and confident outlook,” she added.

Prof Andrew Steptoe, head of behavioural science and health at UCL, who was not involved in the study, said optimists may genuinely lead more hassle-free existences than pessimists.

They may be easier to get on with than pessimists and so run into conflict less often, for example. Or they may simply be less likely to view daily incidents as stresses.

“If you have an optimistic disposition, it seems quite plausible that you won’t regard relatively trivial occurrences in your life as stressful,” he said.

What the findings mean for wellbeing is difficult to say though, he added.

“There is evidence that greater optimism and less pessimism is linked with reduced risk of future ill-health.

“This could be related to lifestyle - greater physical activity, better diet, less smoking – though optimism also has biological correlates, such as lower systemic inflammation, that may be health protective.”

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