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Why optimists live longer than the rest of us

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Do you see the glass as half full rather than half empty? Do you always look on the bright side of life? If so, you may be surprised to learn that this tendency can actually be good for your health.

A number of studies have shown that optimists enjoy higher levels of well-being, better sleep, less stress and even better cardiovascular health and immune function. And now a study links being an optimist with a longer life.

Researchers tracked the lifespans of some 160,000 women, ages 50 to 79, for 26 years. At the start of the study, the women completed a self-report measure of optimism. Women with the highest scores on the measure were categorized as optimists. Those with the lowest scores were considered pessimists.

Why Some People Are More Optimistic Than Others – And Why It Matters

Then, in 2019, the researchers followed the participants who were still alive. They also looked at the lifespan of deceased participants. What they found was that those who had the highest levels of optimism were more likely to live longer. More importantly, the optimists were also more likely than those who were pessimists to live in their 90s. Researchers call this “exceptional longevity,” as the average lifespan of women in developed countries is about 83 years.

What makes these findings particularly impressive is that the results held up even after taking into account other factors known to predict longevity — including education level and economic status, ethnicity, and whether a person suffered from depression or other chronic health conditions.

But since the study only looked at women, it’s uncertain whether the same would hold true for men. But another study of both men and women also found that people with the highest levels of optimism had a lifespan that was between 11 and 15 percent longer than those who were the least optimistic.

So why do optimists live longer? At first glance, it seems to be related to their healthier lifestyle.

Healthy lifestyle can increase life expectancy, study suggests

For example, research from several studies has found that optimism is associated with eating healthy, staying physically active, and being less likely to smoke cigarettes. This healthy behavior is known to improve heart health and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, which is a leading cause of death worldwide. Adopting a healthy lifestyle is also important to reduce the risk of other potentially fatal diseases, such as diabetes and cancer.

But a healthy lifestyle may only be part of the reason optimists live longer than average lives. The latest study found that lifestyle makes up only 24 percent of the association between optimism and longevity, suggesting that a number of other factors influence the longevity of optimists.

Another possible reason could be the way optimists deal with stress. When faced with a stressful situation, optimists tend to deal with it head-on. They use adaptive coping strategies that help them resolve the source of the stress, or view the situation in a less stressful way. For example, optimists will solve problems and come up with ways to deal with the stressor, ask others for support, or try to find a “silver edge” in the stressful situation.

All of these approaches are known to reduce feelings of stress, as well as the biological responses that occur when we feel stressed. It’s these biological responses to stress — such as elevated cortisol (sometimes called the “stress hormone”), increased heart rate and blood pressure, and decreased immune system function — that over time can negatively impact health and increase the risk of developing of life-threatening diseases, such as cardiovascular disease. In short, the way optimists deal with stress may help protect them somewhat from its harmful effects.

Looking from the bright side

Optimism is generally viewed by researchers as a relatively stable personality trait determined by both genetic and early childhood influences (such as a safe and warm relationship with your parents or caregivers). But if you’re not naturally inclined to see the glass as half full, there are some ways you can increase your ability to be optimistic.

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Research shows that optimism can change over time and can be cultivated by doing simple exercises. For example, visualizing and then writing about your “best possible self” (a future version of yourself who has achieved your goals) is one technique that research has shown can significantly increase optimism, at least temporarily. But for the best results, goals should be both positive and reasonable, rather than just wishful thinking. Likewise, simply thinking about positive future events can also be effective in boosting the optimism.

It’s also critical to temper any expectations for success with an accurate picture of what you can and cannot control. Optimism is heightened when we experience the positive results we expect, but it can diminish when those results are not what we want them to be. While more research is needed, if you regularly envision yourself getting the best possible results and take realistic steps to achieve them, you may be able to develop an optimistic mindset.

Of course, this may be easier said than done for some. If you’re not naturally optimistic, the best chance for improving your longevity is to lead a healthy lifestyle by staying physically active, eating a healthy diet, managing stress, and getting a good night’s sleep. Add to that cultivating a more optimistic frame of mind and you could further increase your chances of longevity.

This article was originally published on theconversation.com

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