New study suggests that optimists tend to be healthier and live longer

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.


  1. unit000 says

    Irritatingly, there doesn’t appear to be an institutional login at PNAS and the paper isn’t on EBSCO (I’m a psychology undergraduate).

  2. Marshall says

    These long-term longitudinal studies on mortality always kind of weird me out. I imagine a researcher with some big database of people that labels them alive or dead, and they sit there and any time one of those points switches from A to D they go “Woohoo! A new datapoint!” It was tracking an individual life and that life just ended.

    Also, many of them are probably often started by researches for whom the study outlived. Imagine you’re 65 and run a lab that studies mortality, and you want to do a longitudinal study on mortality. You can either 1) pick the entry age into your study at 75 or so, or 2) expect your lab descendants to do so. This weirds me out too!

    I don’t think they’re bad in any way, just weird.

  3. file thirteen says


    I tire of the sappy “power of positive thinking” crap. It’s a myth that everyone wants desperately to believe, and people will eat it up. But experience, not pessimism, has taught me that the likelihood is it is yet another study that hasn’t adjusted for obvious confounders; for example in this case, not compensating for unfortunate life events that negatively affected mortality and drove people from optimism to pessimism as a side effect.

    Don’t agree? Here’s food for thought: does positive thinking help cancer survival rates? Nope.

  4. flex says

    @Marshall, #2,

    I don’t think they’re bad in any way, just weird.

    I’d be a little more skeptical. That 70,000 woman number rings a bell, and without reading the paper it reminds me of the much vaunted Harvard Nurses Health Study. The numbers don’t quite add up, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this study consists of a cohort of that dataset. Now the Harvard Nurses Health Study isn’t a bad dataset to look at, but it was not established to answer the question of whether optimism leads to longevity. It is simply a long-running epidemiological study collecting data.

    How that data is interpreted based on various models proposed over the years has varied. The problem with data which was not collected in response to a specific question is that the data can be interpreted almost any way you want it to be. A good scientific procedure is to indicate both the question you want to ask, and the results you expect to find, prior to ever collecting the data.

    That being said, this doesn’t mean the data is useless. It can be a very helpful indicator of what new testing should be done to collect data to verify the null hypothesis on any revelation the original epidemiological data suggests. So it can be very useful. But publishing a result strictly based on someone else’s data collection is known as data mining, and looked down on, for good reason. Data mining happens, and quite frequently, but is it not unusual that replication studies to determine if the specific result garnered from data mining fails to find the same correlation as the original data (which was not specificity asking the question).

    So it is quite appropriate to be skeptical of results of this nature without digging deeply into the sources of their data and how their results were discovered. It doesn’t mean the results are incorrect, only that if the paper is using data which was not collected to specifically answer the question the researchers asked, it is probably best to wait for independent confirmation.

  5. lochaber says

    I’m with file thirteen on this one.

    I think they are mixing up cause and effect. If you’ve had a kinda shitty life, your expected longevity has already taken a hit, and I think you are more likely to have a pessimistic outlook on life. You learn from experience, right?

  6. file thirteen says

    @johnson catman #4

    I expected someone to say that… oops that’s another ten years… :-S

  7. Sam N says

    Yeah, file thirteen brings up the criticism that I immediately thought of, as well.

    @2, having interacted with someone who waited for children to die to fill out his data set, he found it rather depressing. Not much joy at all in garnering a new data point.

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