By Josh Richardson | Prevent Disease
What helps people live longer than anything else? What about having an optimistic outlook on life — a general expectation that good things will happen? According to a new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, that's the case.
“The absence of the negative is not the same thing as the presence of the positive. We found that factors such as optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness are associated with reduced risk of CVD regardless of such factors as a person's age, socioeconomic status, smoking status, or body weight,” said author Julia Boehm, research fellow in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at HSPH.
“While most medical and public health efforts today focus on reducing risk factors for diseases, evidence has been mounting that enhancing psychological resilience may also make a difference,” said Eric Kim, research fellow in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and co-lead author of the study. “Our new findings suggest that we should make efforts to boost optimism, which has been shown to be associated with healthier behaviors and healthier ways of coping with life challenges.”
The study appears online today in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
The study also found that healthy behaviors only partially explain the link between optimism and reduced mortality risk. One other possibility is that higher optimism directly impacts our biological systems, Kim said.
“Out of all predictable outcomes of most scientific studies we've reviewed, positive thinking is was changed longevity of humans more than any other factor,” said psychologist Dr. Linda Sowpresa.
There are psychological assets, like optimism and positive emotion, that afford protection against cardiovascular disease. It also appears that these factors slow the progression of disease. The science of happiness is increasingly suggesting a link between happiness and health.
The study analyzed data from 2004 to 2012 from 70,000 women enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study, a long-running study tracking women's health via surveys every two years. They looked at participants' levels of optimism and other factors that might play a role in how optimism may affect mortality risk, such as race, high blood pressure, diet, and physical activity.
The most optimistic women (the top quartile) had a nearly 30 percent lower risk of dying from any of the diseases analyzed in the study compared with the least optimistic (the bottom quartile), the study found. The most optimistic women had a 16 percent lower risk of dying from cancer; 38 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease; 39 percent lower risk of dying from stroke; 38 percent lower risk of dying from respiratory disease; and 52 percent lower risk of dying from infection.
Optimism and happiness and good health go hand-in-hand and scientific studies have been finding that happiness can make our hearts healthier, our immune systems stronger, and our lives longer through enhancements of our cellular structure.
While other studies have linked optimism with reduced risk of early death from cardiovascular problems, this was the first to find a link between optimism and reduced risk from other major causes.
“Previous studies have shown that optimism can be altered with relatively uncomplicated and low-cost interventions — even something as simple as having people write down and think about the best possible outcomes for various areas of their lives, such as careers or friendships,” said postdoctoral research fellow Kaitlin Hagan, co-lead author of the study. “Encouraging use of these interventions could be an innovative way to enhance health in the future.”