By John Salak —
Pollyannas, those excessively optimistic people, may be annoying to others but they apparently do alright by themselves. In fact, chances are hopelessly cheery women of every race and ethnic background will lead longer lifespans and have a better chance of reaching 90 and beyond than Debbie Downers, according to recent research.
“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,” reported, Hayami Koga, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard Chan School. “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.”
The Harvard team identified the link by analyzing data and survey responses from almost 160,000 participants in the Women’s Health Initiative. The input was taken from women 50-79 between 1993 and 1998 and then 26 years later.
The 25 percent of participants who were judged to be most optimistic averaged lifespans 5.4 percent longer than the quarter of women who were least optimistic. They also had a 10-percent greater chance of living past 90.
There was no difference in the impact of optimism on race, ethnicity, demographics or chronic conditions. Lifestyle factors, such as regular exercise and healthy eating, accounted for less than a quarter of the optimism-lifespan association, which means other factors may be at play, the team reported.
The results ultimately could help reframe how people view the decisions that affect their health, Koga said.
“We tend to focus on the negative risk factors that affect our health,” he noted. “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.”
The Chan School has been dipping into the power of positive thinking for years. Several years ago, working alongside researchers from Boston University, it was reported that optimistic individuals, in general, live longer than more pessimistic types.
The previous study centered mostly on white individuals and found that the most optimistic men and women lived on average, 11 to 15 percent longer and had 50-70 percent greater odds of reaching 85 years old than the least optimistic groups.
The 2019 study defined optimism as having a general expectation that good things will happen or believing that the future will be favorable because people can control important outcomes.
“Research on the reason why optimism matters so much remains to be done, but the link between optimism and health is becoming more evident,” noted the study’s senior author Fran Grodstein, a professor at Chan School
Koga and her colleagues broadened the focus of the first study to include women from across racial and ethnic groups because these groups have higher mortality rates than white populations.
Just why optimism is so potent for extending longevity is unclear. Certainly, it may lessen the devastating health impact of stress. Regardless, a positive outlook has its benefits.