Think Positive, You May Live Longer

January 10, 2010 08:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
An eight-year study of women over 50 found that optimistic women were less prone to heart disease and less likely to die from other causes, reported the British Medical Journal. A number of similar studies support the theory that optimists live longer, healthier lives.

Optimism’s Impact on Women’s Health

According to the British Medical Journal, “[W]omen who are trustful of others are likely to live longer than those who harbour ‘cynical hostility.’

Researchers surveyed close to 100,000 post-menopausal women, excluding participants with cardiovascular disease or cancer, and found that the most optimistic women in the group had a better survival rate than the most pessimistic women, and were less prone to heart disease.

According to PubMed’s abstract of the study, researchers determined each woman’s level of “trait optimism” from surveys they completed, including the Life Orientation Test Revised survey (LOT-R), a sample of which is found on the University of Miami’s Web site.

Disentangling optimism from educational background, fitness levels and salary is difficult and can obscure results, reported the British Medical Journal. Predictably, the most optimistic women were “richer, better educated, exercised more, and were less likely to smoke or be overweight.”

After controlling for these characteristics, the impact of attitude, whether optimistic or pessimistic, was less pronounced, but still significant. The most optimistic women were “14 percent less likely to have died from any cause” during the 8-year period, whereas the most pessimistic and “cynically hostile” women had a 16 percent greater chance of dying. However, the BMJ noted, “once factors like income and lifestyle were taken into account in this group, the risk of heart disease was not altered.”

According to PubMed, the study’s conclusion noted, “Future research should examine whether interventions designed to change attitudes would lead to altered risk.”

Opinion & Analysis: Friends and optimism

Alice Park, a writer for Time magazine, asked in reference to the study, “So if the women’s lifestyle doesn’t explain their longevity, what does?” The study’s lead researcher Dr. Hilary Tindle says she plans to explore other hypotheses, such as the theory that optimistic people have more friends, or better coping strategies.

Author Jeffrey Zaslow, writing for the site The Women on the Web, noted, “A host of studies show that having a close group of friends helps women sleep better, improve their immune systems, stave off dementia and actually live longer.”

He cited a study from Flinders University in Australia that shadowed 1,500 women for a 14-year period, and found that regardless of the strength of their familial relationships, women with more friends lived 22 percent longer than women with fewer friends.

Background: Understanding research on optimism

Sam Wong, a writer for The Guardian, explained that most studies of optimism explore two different categories: “dispositional optimism,” which is the general habit of believing in positive future outcomes, and “optimistic explanatory style,” where individuals credit fleeting external factors for causing bad things to happen.

Martin Seligman, in his book “Learned Optimism,” examined the difference between positive and negative explanatory styles and helps readers to change their way of thinking about events.

Seligman defined the three categories of explanatory style as permanence, personalization and pervasiveness. A pessimist will explain a negative event as having personal, permament and pervasive causes whereas an optimist will see an event as a temporary challenge rather than a lasting failure. A pessimist will also blame herself for a mistake, while optimists often externalize blame.

Dr. Karen Reivich, author of "The Resilience Factor" and a colleague of Seligman noted,
"I want to stress that these are thinking styles, these are not personality traits... you can absolutely increase your ability to focus on other causes of the problem."

NEXT: Study Suggests Depressed People Have Trouble Enjoying Positive Experiences >

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines