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On the bright side, optimism leads to longer life

Part of living forever is thinking that you might.

By Cassidy Ward
Group portrait of three mature women smiling

The 2006 biographical drama The Pursuit of Happyness (now streaming on Peacock!) tells the story of Chris Gardner — played by Will Smith, who’s just trying to do right by his son in difficult economic and social circumstances. He is, at the root of it, pursuing happiness through an unshakeable optimism in the face of overwhelming odds.

There’s no arguing that Gardner got where he was going through no small amount of fortunate, hard-won connections, but his optimism certainly didn’t hurt. The true story, while clearly dramatized and altered for the screen, is evidence that the right attitude — or the wrong one — is a factor in everyone’s story. Now, according to a recent study, we also know that optimism can lead not only to a more successful life, but also a longer one.

Hayami Koga from the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard University, and colleagues, studied the impact of optimism on longevity, across diverse demographics, and found that those individuals who self-reported an optimistic outlook lived longer and had a higher probability of exceeding 90 years of age. Their findings were published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society.

“This was seen even after accounting for a broad range of factors that might explain away the association, such as socioeconomic status, or age or health status at the start of the study. We found these links were generally similar across all race and ethnic groups we studied,” Koga told SYFY WIRE.

The study included 159,255 participants, all of whom were post-menopausal women with an average age of 63 at the beginning of the study. Optimism was quantified using the Life Orientation Test Revised, which asks participants to self-report their answers to six questions such as “Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad.” Those scores were then tallied up to get an overall score of an individual’s optimism.

Unlike longevity studies in mice or other model organisms, gaining insight into the longevity of humans takes a long time. To that end, each of the participants joined the study sometime between 1993 and 1998 and remained in the study for up to 26 years, until now. The results were pretty striking.

“We found that the most optimistic women lived 5% longer lives and had 10% greater likelihood of reaching 90 years old, compared to those with the lowest levels of optimism,” Koga said.

What is unclear at this point is any causal relationship. There appears to be a correlation between optimism and longer life, but it could be that those who are already predisposed to good health and long life also happen to be happier. These two factors apparently walk hand in hand, but we don’t know which is leading the march. It’s also unclear what interventions, if any, can be taken.

“What we don’t know yet is whether intervening to increase optimism can in turn promote health and longevity. Identifying that would be a next step for this research,” Koga said.

In the meantime, Koga recommends taking steps to make yourself optimistic. She mentioned the Best Possible Self Intervention, which has been previously studied, and involves identifying goals and imagining a future in which you achieve them. She also suggests practicing gratitude and taking time each day to think of a few positive things which happened to you. She also left some room to recognize that sometimes life circumstances are out of our control.

“An important thing to keep in mind is that although optimism is a modifiable resource, we have to consider the structural factors that may or may not affect this particular resource.” Koga said.

Thinking happy thoughts and making efforts to restructure your mental frameworks may or may not give you a few extra years of life, but it could help you to better enjoy the ones you have. After all, no matter what you do, you're not going to live forever. Might as well try to have a good time.