The physiological reason to always look on the bright side of life

By Summer Revely

Optimism is perfectly summarised by the glass ‘half-empty’ vs ‘half-full’ analogy – do you fixate on life’s problems, or are you always looking for that silver lining? Whilst previous research has shown that optimists tend to be generally happier as a result of higher levels of well-being, sleep, and lower stress levels, we discuss how these factors can physiologically lead to a longer, healthier life.

For the first time, research has linked optimism to longevity across a racially and ethnically diverse group. The study was conducted with 160,000 females aged 50-79, where self-testing was used initially to categorise participants as optimists and pessimists. Participants were monitored over a time period of twenty-six years.

This interestingly revealed that whilst also accounting for other factors known to affect lifespans – like access to education, economic status, and mental health conditions – optimists live longer overall, and were more likely to reach ‘exceptional longevity’ (living into their nineties). Further research supported this conclusion in both males and females, with optimists enjoying an 11-15% longer lifespan than those defined as pessimistic. So, turn that frown upside down.

A 0.2-4.4 year increase in lifespan as a consequence of regular exercise can be linked to the positive mental attitude that exercise promotes

But what links a positive mental attitude and physical health?

The most common understood reasons for optimism’s positive correlation with lifespan surround having a healthier lifestyle. In the study, lifestyle was quantified under five groups – quality, physical activity, body mass index, tobacco use and alcohol consumption – and it was revealed that lifestyle moderately effects optimism.

A well-balanced diet, physical activity and being a non-smoker together lower the probability of developing cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death globally. So, an activity-driven boost in serotonin that gives us a more positive outlook on life can also increase our lifespan.

Specifically, a 0.2-4.4 year increase in lifespan as a consequence of regular exercise can be linked to the positive mental attitude that exercise promotes. However, this latest study found that lifestyle factors only account for 24% of the link between a positive mindset and a longer, healthy life.

When put under pressure, research showed that optimists deal with stressful situations head-on, by using coping mechanisms to directly overcome a source of stress, or to view it as less of a stressful task. These include looking for a problem’s silver lining and asking others for help, to reduce feelings of stress by lowering the biological stress-induced reaction rates like cortisol release.

When cortisol is released during stress, the hormone raises the heart rate and blood pressure and can be associated with impairment to immune system function, so, when it is released less by optimists, risks of disease development are reduced. To summarise, optimists deal with stress more proactively, which biologically reduces their risk of developing diseases.

Research also provides strategies to view situations in a more positive light if you don’t see the glass as ‘half-full’

Researchers generally view optimism as a trait developed both through nature and nurture. As well as genetic influence, having a secure, loving relationship with your parents or caregivers as a child is associated with having a more positive outlook on life later on. However, research also provides strategies to view situations in a more positive light if you don’t see the glass as ‘half-full’.

Spend a minute or two now to imagine your ‘best possible-self’. Think of positive events that you have coming up, and picture a version of yourself who has achieved your goals. This technique of being intentionally optimistic has been shown to uplift mental attitude, at least temporarily, to a significant level above the threshold.

However, optimists are not unrealistic. Not reaching an unrealistic goal that you have pictured for yourself can do the reverse of the intended, and decrease levels of optimism. Alternatively, envisioning yourself as having met your goals, and taking constructive, realistic, and small steps to reach them, helps in the development of a long-term positive mindset.

The above is definitely more easily said than done when life is constantly giving you lemons, but by pairing a physiologically healthier lifestyle with these active techniques to reach your goals, you can make lemonade. Whilst more research is required to solidify these conclusions, we can hope that these techniques can allow you to live a longer life.


Image: Madison Oren via Unsplash

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