February 22, 2017
A longer, healthier life doesn’t sound like a bad deal. It can be achieved by simply changing your mood, according to a study by Harvard University.
Researchers suggest optimists are less likely to suffer from common health issues like heart disease, cancer, and infection, giving them a healthy advantage over the rest of the population. And for those who are not natural optimists, there’s good news: Clinical trials indicate optimism can be learned.1
“If associations between optimism and broader health outcomes are established, it may lead to novel interventions that improve public health and longevity,” the study said.
The study associated optimism with protection from major health issues – a first in the world of optimism-related studies. The researchers weren’t able to prove a cause-and-effect relationship between optimism and health issues, but according to the study, higher degrees of optimism were associated with lower mortality risks.
“While most medical and public health efforts today focus on reducing risk factors for diseases, evidence has been mounting that enhancing psychological resilience may also make a difference,” said co-lead author Eric Kim, research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Our new findings suggest that we should make efforts to boost optimism, which has been shown to be associated with healthier behaviors and healthier ways of coping with life challenges.”2
Researchers took data from a Nurses’ Health Study (a long-term study conducted to determine women’s health), and measured all-cause and cause-specific mortality rates from 2006 to 2012. They also controlled for any variables, including sociodemographic characteristics, depression, health behaviors, and health conditions.
After excluding participants who were sick at the beginning or who died within the first two years, women who were considered the most optimistic had a reduced risk of dying, compared to those considered the least optimistic.
Experts suggest learning to think like an optimist can be accomplished with quick and easy exercises. Kaitlin Hagan, co-lead author and research fellow, said thinking about and writing down the best possible outcomes in various areas of life could help.
“Encouraging use of these interventions could be an innovative way to enhance health in the future,” she said.
Philadelphia psychologist Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Your Child From Negative Thinking, said there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to approaching optimism.3
“Optimists don’t attach big explanations to little events,” Chanksy said. “They don’t supersize problems. When something goes wrong, a kid with a pessimistic mind-set thinks that means everything will go wrong – and that she must have done something to make it happen.”
Chansky said the first step to achieving optimism is avoiding negativity. Instead of looking at things in black and white, thinking in gray areas may be more beneficial.
Kim said not only could optimism encourage healthy behaviors, it could also have a link to our biology as well. The study gives food for thought on to how the thought process directly affects human health.
“Given that optimism was associated with numerous causes of mortality, it may provide a valuable target for new research on strategies to improve health,” the study said.
2 MacMillan A. Optimism Could Help You Live Longer. Real Simple. 2017. Accessed February 16, 2017.
3 King Lindle J. How to Raise a Positive Thinker. Real Simple. 2016. Accessed February 16, 2017.