In the tug-of-war between the world views of cheery optimists and dour pessimists, the happy people just got a big boost. Those who see the glass as half full, according to a new study, live longer.
Pessimists, of course, might have suspected this all along — but now there’s actual research behind it.
Boston-area scientists found the most optimistic people live an average of 11 to 15% longer than their more pessimistic peers. Women who are optimists are also 50 percent more likely to live at least to age 85, while male optimists are 70 percent more likely to live that long, said Lewina Lee, the lead researcher and a psychiatry professor at Boston University’ School of Medicine.
“In previous studies, researchers have found that more optimistic people tend to have lower risk of chronic diseases and premature death,” Lee said. “Our study took it one step further.”
Optimists generally expect good things to happen in the future and feel like they can control important outcomes. They tend to stay positive and put the best spin on whatever comes their way.
Not a natural optimist? There’s good news: The mind-set is about 25 percent hereditary, Lee said, meaning people have some control over their level of good thoughts. She said cognitive behavioral therapy and imagining a future in which your goals have been reached are examples of ways that people can become more optimistic.
To conduct their research, Lee and the other scientists compared results from two independently conducted studies — one that followed nearly 70,000 women for a decade and another that followed about 1,400 men for 30 years. People self-reported their optimism on questionnaires by ranking themselves on statements including “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best” or “I’m always optimistic about my future.”
The conclusion that optimistic people tend to live longer holds true regardless of other factors, including socioeconomic status, body mass index, social integration and alcohol use, Lee said. The findings were published Aug. 26 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study leaves one question unanswered: Why are optimists likely to live longer? Although it’s unclear, the researchers believe optimists may be better at regulating stressors and bouncing back from upsetting events. Optimists also generally have healthier habits, like exercising more and smoking less.
Scientists already knew that optimism can give people the self-efficacy to reach difficult goals, protect their health in high-stress times, strengthen their romantic relationships, improve their eating habits and ease their job searches. Now — and this would be hardly a surprise to optimists — researchers know happy people are more likely to do these things into old age.