How Optimism Supports Your Health and Longevity
Updated on 5/15/23 by Cambria Glosz, MS, RD
Are you more of a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full kind of person? Turns out, being optimistic affects more than just your mood. As you'll soon see, research has shown that a positive outlook can improve the outcomes of several health conditions and even extend lifespan.
Although there is a genetic component to the trait, given that about 25% of optimism is heritable, a positive disposition can definitely be learned. In this article, we'll look into the research on how optimism can help various health conditions, and how you can turn yourself into a more positive person if you have a tendency to lean towards pessimism.
How Does Optimism Affect Health?
Optimism is a component of positive psychology, which encompasses a variety of techniques that promote the identification and development of positive emotions and experiences, rather than focusing or dwelling on negative ones. Optimists generally believe that the outcome of a certain event will turn out favorably; this outlook tends to lead to a reduced risk of feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed.
Although optimism seems to be just a matter of psychology, it actually leads to an impact on our biology as well. There are many factors that play a role in how optimism can improve our health. First, chronic stress and anxious feelings can play a role in the development of high blood pressure and heart conditions. Being optimistic is linked to reductions in anxious feelings, which can, in turn, reduce the risk of these conditions.
Second, it's been proposed that optimistic people don't develop chronic conditions because they tend to live healthier lives in general. They eat better, they exercise, they don't smoke, and they are more social—all of which indirectly link optimism with health. This is likely a bi-directional relationship, as having healthier habits can also promote optimism. Along the same lines, optimistic people may be more likely to take action sooner when they receive a disease diagnosis or warning, thus leading to reductions in overall disease progression or development.
Thirdly, optimism can influence health by directly impacting our biological pathways, such as reducing heart rate variability, blood pressure, blood lipids, and inflammatory markers related to metabolic dysfunction.
How Optimism Can Improve Health
Cardiovascular Health Outcomes
Cardiovascular conditions and its various risk factors have been linked to levels of optimism. One reason for this is due to the association between serum lipid levels and cholesterol. Serum lipid levels are a prominent factor involved in developing heart conditions. Several studies have found links between optimism and a reduction in LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, plus increases in HDL cholesterol.
A review of 29 studies found that optimism was linked to several improvements in cardiovascular health outcomes, including reductions in re-hospitalizations after heart attacks or heart surgeries, and a reduction in cardiovascular-related mortality in the elderly population.
In a large meta-analysis of almost 230,000 individuals, optimism was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality, while being pessimistic increased the risk of cardiovascular events.
A study published in the Journal of Aging Research looked at a sample of older men and women over a 12-year period. In both sexes. A higher score on an optimism scale was linked to a reduction in cardiovascular-related mortality. Optimistic participants did tend to have healthier habits, like exercising, not smoking, and not consuming too much alcohol. However, the associations between cardiovascular-related mortality and optimism still remained even after controlling for these variables.
Healthy Aging and Longevity
Healthy aging can mean many things, such as increased longevity, reductions in cognitive decline, or reduced risk of chronic conditions. As it's common for older adults to experience comorbidities (having more than one disease), increasing healthspan versus lifespan should be a primary focus for successful aging.
Higher optimism tends to result in less cognitive loss, a reduction in the need for being placed in a care facility, and a decreased fall risk. And those centenarians you've heard about, those who live healthfully past age 100? In general, they tend to have personality traits that are more optimistic and easygoing.
How to Practice Optimism
If you're a serial pessimist, it may take some time to reframe your thoughts to become more positive and sunny. However, learning to be optimistic is definitely possible, and as we've seen, your overall health and longevity depend on it!
Here are some tips to become more optimistic in your day-to-day life include:
- Retrain your brain by challenging yourself to look on the bright side of things, as cliché as that sounds. No matter how bad the scenario is or appears to be, a conscious shift in viewpoint can lead to positive thoughts becoming more automatic with time.
- Create a hopeful mantra or do meditation exercises that focus on optimism, positivity, or happiness.
- Create a positive environment: Surround yourself with optimistic people, unfollow accounts on social media who make you feel negative, or replace news-watching with reading an uplifting book or listening to music you love.
- Make a gratitude list daily. While you can just recite it in your head, writing down what you are grateful for can help to further solidify those positive feelings.
- Practice the healthy habits that may have a bidirectional relationship with optimism, like getting out in nature, exercising, eating healthy, having a positive social circle, and getting enough sleep.
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