Prior research has connected optimism and other positive psychological factors with longevity beyond 85 years in women, but the groups studied were predominately white women. (Not the most diverse sample size.) This new study, published in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, is helping close a needed gap in the lack of inclusion across all racial and ethnic groups in public health research.
The study looked at data from 159,255 participants in the Women's Health Initiative—ranging in age from 50 to 79—for more than 25 years. Women from several different races and ethnicities (including Black, Latina, and Asian) were part of the study. The researchers found that the top 25 percent most optimistic participants had a 5.4 percent longer lifespan, as well as a greater likelihood of living beyond 90 years, than the 25 percent who were the least optimistic. These trends held true when adjusting for demographics, chronic health conditions, and depression. Basically, the power of optimism really can add to your lifespan in almost all scenarios.
“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 lead study author Hayami Koga, MPH, a PhD student with the Harvard Chan School, in a press release.
“This study is important and pretty exciting as the research suggests that the benefits of optimism may in fact hold true across diverse groups,” says Deepika Chopra, PsyD, known as "The Optimism Doctor," host of the Looking Up Podcast, and founder of Things Are Looking UP. “Research shows that a more optimistic mindset is associated with many health benefits, including an increase of happiness, greater life satisfaction, better cardiovascular health, longevity, an increase in goal setting and achieving (even in the face of obstacles), lower reactivity to stress, better self-esteem, confidence, and more meaningful relationships," she says. And now we know that more diverse groups can potentially reap health benefits from optimism.
The takeaway for Koga is a new charge to rethink how certain decisions affect our health and to put weight in the value of optimism. Rather than focus entirely on negative factors and their correlations with our overall health and wellness, now there is more data to back up shifting the focus to the positive across all groups.
“Despite popular belief, being optimistic is not about being positive all the time, and it is certainly not about being ‘devoid of reality,’” Dr. Chopra tells Well+Good. “A true optimist is someone who is mindfully aware of the roadblocks and setbacks, or less-than-ideal situations that happen in all of our lives, but they see them as temporary and as things that they have the power to overcome.”
Dr. Chopra agrees that the study is an affirming indicator that optimism could be a new possible intervention in promoting longevity and a more health-forward approach to aging across many different types of populations.“There are many different ways to increase optimism in our daily lives,” she says. “Developing a visual imagery practice, being able to visualize favorable outcomes, and getting to know our future selves a bit more is a big part of optimism training.”
Other areas like movement, spending time outdoors, and practicing authenticity are key ways Dr. Chopra encourages optimism-focused behavior. “In small ways throughout the day, practicing shifting our perspective, challenging our self-limiting beliefs, relying upon our strengths, surrounding ourselves with optimistic people, and celebrating our small wins are some of the few out of many ways we can work towards a more optimistic mindset.” So raise that half-full glass in a toast to your future!
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