According to a large-scale longitudinal study, people who are optimistic tended to live longer than those who are not, and it even increased the chances of ‘exceptional longevity’, the term used for people who live to be 85 or more.
The team split about 70,000 women into four equally sized groups, based on their scores for optimism. They then compared lifespan for the most optimistic with the least, taking into account factors including age, sex, race, education, depression and other health conditions present at the outset.
The results show the most optimistic group of women had a lifespan almost 15% longer than the least.
Similar results were seen in men, even though optimism was measured slightly differently. When the team compared the fifth of men boasting the highest optimism scores with the least optimistic, they found the most positive men had lifespans almost 11% longer.
There seem to be other benefits associated with being upbeat.
It is not the first time optimism has been linked to health benefits. People of an upbeat disposition have previously been found to have a lower risk of heart conditions and premature death. Researchers now say it could also play a role in living a long life.
Ok, so optimism is a good thing. But what constitutes optimism? According to the researchers, it is “a psychological attribute characterized as the general expectation that good things will happen, or the belief that the future will be favorable because one can control important outcomes.” They measured optimism “using the Life Orientation Test–Revised in NHS and the Revised Optimism–Pessimism Scale from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2”.
I found a version of the Life Orientation Test here. It contains just 10 items. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 inventory contains 567 items and must be given and scored by a trained professional and so is not publicly available.
Other studies have suggested similar benefits to optimism.
Research suggested people who are more optimistic might also lead a healthier lifestyle, therefore the analysis took into account factors including exercise levels, diet, smoking and how much alcohol participants drank.
Studies such as these raise some obvious questions. What can be done with it? To be useful, optimism should be a trait that is modifiable. I would have thought that whatever combination of nature and nurture contributes to one’s level of optimism, it would be largely fixed by the time one reached adulthood. But apparently not, suggesting that there may be strategies for becoming more optimistic. Also, does being more optimistic lead to healthier outcomes or does being generally healthy make one more optimistic?
The other problem is that most of the study participants were white and few from lower socioeconomic status.
You can read the paper here.