The one thing that can help you live longer and healthier

By Alistair Gardiner
Published December 2, 2020

Key Takeaways

What if you found out that one simple lifestyle change could improve both your physical and mental health outcomes in a number of ways? And what if you learned that this change isn’t about adding more exercise or changing your diet, but rather a basic change in the way you see the world?

According to a growing body of research, having an optimistic view of life is associated with a range of health benefits, from lowering blood pressure to improved recovery after surgery.

Can a happy disposition reduce your risk for hypertension?

According to one recent study, having a higher level of optimism may mean you’re less likely to develop hypertension.

The study, published in Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, looked at more than 100,000 young and healthy US Army active-duty soldiers over 3 and one-half years. Researchers knew that soldiers are more likely than the general public to develop hypertension due to the number of stressors relating to their job.

After assessing the group for optimism, sociodemographic characteristics, health conditions, health behaviors, and monitoring for the development of hypertension, the researchers found that those with the highest level of optimism had a 22% lower risk of developing high blood pressure. This finding was observed in both men and women across all racial and ethnic groups, and was found regardless of sociodemographic and health factors, like depression and smoking.

Early-onset hypertension can lead to a variety of cardiovascular problems later in life. As such, the study’s authors concluded that optimism should be regarded as a health asset and a possible focus for public health interventions.

Why does positivity appear to affect health?

While there aren’t enough data yet to make any conclusive statements on how optimism causally affects health, various studies have presented results that scientists have used to hypothesize how optimism and health are linked.

Research has suggested that having an optimistic outlook is associated with lower levels of inflammation and higher levels of HDL cholesterol. Other studies have linked optimism to having lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Research has also indicated that optimistic people tend to have reduced levels of adrenaline, an improved immune system, and less active clotting systems.

That said, much of the research in this area is based on the relationship between optimism and the conditions of those in poor health. What’s missing is data on how optimism can improve physical well-being in healthy people.

Beyond that, there is a chance that the results of many of these studies are influenced by the fact that optimistic people tend to live healthier lifestyles, with healthier diets, lower levels of smoking and drinking, and higher levels of physical activity. And, of course, there’s always the possibility that optimism is actually a result of being physically healthier, rather than the other way around.

However, there is mounting evidence that having an optimistic attitude may improve your health. One review that aggregated the findings of 84 studies found that optimism is a significant predictor of physical health. The authors also conducted a separate analysis of studies that focused exclusively on survival, mortality, cardiovascular outcomes, immune functions, cancer outcomes, and pregnancy outcomes—and found that all of these factors indicated a significant association between levels of optimism and positive health outcomes.

What else can optimism help with?

Research suggests that optimism is related to positive outcomes in relation to a wide variety of different health indicators and diseases. One study indicated that, compared with pessimists, optimists may be less likely to develop conditions that could result in a higher risk of having a stroke.

The study looked at over 200 middle-aged healthy women, analyzing their general levels of optimism and then monitoring the progression of carotid atherosclerosis over the course of 3 years. Researchers found that those who were chronically optimistic at the beginning of the study had a significantly slower progression of carotid disease than those who were more pessimistic.

Another study looked at the effect of optimism on all-cause mortality among a cohort of elderly people in the Netherlands, with a specific focus on whether having a positive outlook had any impact on the development of cardiovascular disease. During a decade-long follow-up period, almost 400 of the roughly 1,000 subjects had died.

The researchers found that, compared with subjects who showed a high level of pessimism, those who reported feeling more optimistic had a significantly higher survival rate. Likewise, the subjects with a sunnier disposition had lower rates of dying from cardiovascular disease. The authors concluded that there is an independent, protective relationship between dispositional optimism and all-cause mortality in old age, and that prevention of cardiovascular disease accounted for a large part of that.

Similarly, a study from last year found that people with the highest level of optimism had an 11% to 15% longer lifespan as well as 50% to 70% greater odds of achieving “exceptional longevity” (ie, living to the age of 85 or beyond) compared with the least optimistic groups. These results were maintained after accounting for age, educational attainment, chronic disease, depression, alcohol use, exercise, diet, and primary care visits.

So, how exactly does optimism keep you healthier and living longer? No one knows just yet, although some research has shown that those with higher levels of optimism appear to have more functional immune systems and higher counts of T cells. Optimism has also been associated with fewer complications that arise as a result of aging. One study found that older men with a positive outlook tended to have lower levels of general body pain, fewer mental health issues, and better physical and social functioning than those who were more pessimistic.

Look on the bright side

The science points to the fact that you should start looking on the sunny side if you want better health and a higher quality of life. But how should you go about it?

Research suggests that although a sunny disposition is sometimes an inherited trait, the majority of the time it’s about your environment and lifestyle. That means changing your habits, or even just your perspective, may go a long way. Experts advise doing things like imagining your best future self and considering the steps you can take to get there. Spending time thinking about the positive aspects of your life or the things you’re grateful for may also be a step toward seeing the glass half full. Beyond that, regular exercise, meditation, and therapy can contribute to being more optimistic.

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