Sunday Scaries

This overlooked mental-health "hack" increases your chance of living longer

This intervention could support healthy aging across diverse groups.

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There’s a great deal of interest — and cash — in innovations designed to help us live longer. Thousands of dollars have been put toward Silicon Valley efforts like “anti-aging nootropics” and “rejuvenation” startups in a quest to stall the aging process.

But new research published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society suggests there’s one overlooked longevity hack that is consistently associated with longer life and overall well-being: Optimism.

Being told you’ll live longer if you’re optimistic might sound a bit like hearing you’ll be healthier if you eat your broccoli. However, the researchers behind this study say their findings should motivate individuals to reframe their approach to wellness. Furthermore, optimism should be viewed as an approach to better health.

“Because evidence from randomized controlled trials suggests that interventions can increase levels of optimism, optimism could be an important target of intervention to promote longevity and healthy aging across diverse groups,” first author Hayami Koga tells me.

Koga is a Ph.D. candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We tend to focus on the negative risk factors that affect our health,” Koga says.

“I hope that people will think about the importance of 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.”

What optimism really means

Studies link being optimistic to greater odds of achieving “exceptional longevity.”

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In science, being described as optimistic doesn’t mean you have an excessively cheerful attitude or are always wearing rose-colored glasses. Instead, optimists have the general expectation that good things will happen and believe that, while bad things do happen, these negative moments don’t outnumber the positive ones.

A number of studies suggest that greater optimism is linked to better mental and physical health. Previous research has also linked being optimistic to greater odds of achieving “exceptional longevity,” described as living to the age of 85 or older.

In a previous study, Koga and colleagues found the same result, but they examined a mostly white population. For this new paper, they extended the participant pool to include women representing different racial and ethnic groups.

In total, 159,255 women were enrolled in the study when they were between the ages of 50 and 79 years old. Then, for as many as 26 years, researchers followed up with the women and surveyed them about lifestyle factors, like diet and exercise, and their levels of optimism.

The most optimistic women in the study tended to have a 5.4 percent longer lifespan and were 10 percent more likely to live beyond the age of 90 than the least optimistic women, according to the study.

It is important to note that healthy lifestyle choices also contributed to these participants’ overall health, but optimism rose to the top as the major factor driving the difference between the two groups, the study found. Earlier studies also suggest optimistic people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, such as not smoking.

Can you cultivate optimism?

Some studies suggest practicing gratitude can increase optimism.

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While your likelihood of being optimistic is slightly influenced by genetics, optimism is also shaped by social influences.

In turn, systemic problems like racism can affect one’s chances of feeling optimistic. Indeed, the CDC describes racism as “a fundamental driver of racial and ethnic health disparities.” But people who are optimistic are more likely to live longer, regardless of their background. Koga feels this result is in part why the study is so meaningful.

The new study found that the benefits of optimism transcended racial and ethnic grouping.

“It is critical to understand how potential preventative factors operate across racial and ethnic groups in order to improve health,” she says.

Ultimately, you can become more optimistic given the right circumstances.

One intervention that randomized controlled trials support is called the “Best Possible Self Intervention.”

This is all about “identifying goals and then imagining a future in which everything has turned out well and the goals have been reached,” Koga. It really does increase levels of optimism in most people.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is also known to increase optimism, Koga says. This form of therapy typically involves practices that help a person avoid unhelpful or unproductive ways of thinking and to change their patterns of behavior.

Some studies also suggest practicing gratitude may increase optimism. Reflecting on what is going right in your life can rebalance your perspective — and dampen pessimistic thoughts

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