Being more positive can improve one’s well-being.
A team of researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has found that higher levels of optimism was associated with significant health benefits including a longer lifespan. This was true of women who were studied for the paper, with many living beyond 90 years old across racial and ethnic groups. Their research was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
“Although optimism itself may be affected by social structural factors, such as race and ethnicity, our research suggests that the benefits of optimism may hold across diverse groups,” said Hayami Koga, a PhD candidate in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard Chan School and lead author of the study. “A lot of previous work has focused on deficits or risk factors that increase the risks for diseases and premature death. Our findings suggest that there’s value to focusing on positive psychological factors, like optimism, as possible new ways of promoting longevity and healthy aging across diverse groups.”
Previously, the group research team found optimism was “linked to a longer lifespan and exceptional longevity, which was defined as living beyond 85 years of age.” However, mostly white populations were studied during the first go-round, so Koga and her colleagues wanted to widen the participant pool.
According to Koga, “Including diverse populations in research is important to public health because these groups have higher mortality rates than white populations, and there is limited research about them to help inform health policy decisions.”
The team reviewed data and survey responses from 159,255 participants in the Women’s Health Initiative, which includes postmenopausal women in the U.S. The women enrolled in the initiative were between the ages 50-79 from 1993 to 1998. These individuals were followed for up to 26 years.
Of the participants, “the 25% who were the most optimistic were likely to have a 5.4% longer lifespan and a 10% greater likelihood of living beyond 90 years than the 25% who were the least optimistic,” the team wrote. Perhaps most interestingly, lifestyle factors that are traditionally thought to be essential for supporting mental health, such as regular exercise and healthy eating, accounted for “less than a quarter of the optimism-lifespan association.”
The team concluded in their paper, “Higher optimism was associated with longer lifespan and a greater likelihood of achieving exceptional longevity overall and across racial and ethnic groups. The contribution of lifestyle to these associations was modest. Optimism may promote health and longevity in diverse racial and ethnic groups. Future research should investigate these associations in less long-lived populations.”
Of course, one limitation of both studies is that males were not included and further research into the topic would need to account for this gender in order to potentially conclude the same is true for both sexes. Nevertheless, Koga hope her study will help to draw awareness around the positive factors that influence health and well-being.
“We tend to focus on the negative risk factors that affect our health,” said Koga. “It is also important to think about the positive resources such as optimism that may be beneficial to our health, especially if we see that these benefits are seen across racial and ethnic groups.”