Volume 16, Number 7
Numerous factors affect how long and how well a person lives. Some of these variables, such as genetics or luck, are generally considered beyond an individual’s control. It is interesting, however, that advances in genetic engineering may eventually make genetics more controllable. And to some extent luck itself is affected by the hard work and choices that a person does control.
With respect to obviously controllable factors that impact life expectancy and health span (years of living in a healthy state), health behaviors get lots of attention, and appropriately so. The quality of one’s diet, exercise, and sleep clearly affects susceptibility to illness and overall wellness. An often overlooked but largely controllable feature that also has an established relationship to health is optimism.
Optimism has been understood and measured in two general ways. One is as a personality characteristic in which people generally expect positive outcomes. The other is as a learned behavior with respect to how people explain negative outcomes; this type of optimism avoids attributing negative outcomes to factors that are permanent or pervasive in favor of attributions to factors that are temporary and specific. In other words, optimistic individuals tend to avoid using absolutes in how they view negative outcomes. In the face of undesirable circumstances, optimistic individuals are able to maintain an outlook of “not always, not everything” with respect to the potential for improvement or change. And optimism should not be confused with being Pollyannaish, as healthy forms of optimism are grounded in reality.
There have been a number of studies finding a positive relationship between optimism and greater life expectancy, and this has been the case for both ways of characterizing optimism. Seven or more additional years of life expectancy have been associated with optimism. A study published in 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) quantified the benefit of optimism as an “11% to 15% longer life span on average” with associated greater odds of living to the age of 85 or beyond. These benefits tend to be similar to or greater than the impact of not having diabetes or heart disease. Optimism is also associated with less morbidity, meaning that optimistic individuals are found to experience more years with good health. Even when baseline health conditions and lifestyle behaviors are considered, the benefits of optimism remain significant.
Studies have identified a number of pathways for how optimism serves as a bridge to better health. These include robust functioning of the immune system, better relationships, and more effective management of stress. Furthermore, optimistic individuals have been found to be less prone to negative life events based upon the choices they make and the situations in which they place themselves. And optimistic individuals tend to take better care of themselves with healthy lifestyles. It should also be noted that while having better health is conducive to a more optimistic outlook, prospective studies have substantiated that optimism is a much stronger contributor to health than is health a contributor to optimism.
Given the present pandemic, the associated economic recession, and ongoing social justice challenges, it may seem like an odd time to address optimism, but on the other hand this is precisely the kind of situation in which optimism should be discussed and promoted. It is often stated that optimism is 25% heritable, at least when viewed as a personality characteristic, but that also implies that optimism is 75% controllable. Therefore, in the face of circumstances that are conducive to pessimism, practicing an optimistic outlook is a component of resilience.
With respect to the coronavirus, clearly there are steps one can take behaviorally that simultaneously decrease one’s susceptibility to contracting the virus or spreading it. What’s good for oneself is also a contribution to the wellbeing of the community. While economic hardship due to the pandemic should not be trivialized, there are reasons to be hopeful that circumstances can improve. Those whose financial state has been less affected by the pandemic can find meaning in helping those who aren’t as fortunate, either through spending or charitable contributions. And activism toward eliminating the racism and social injustice that have plagued our country throughout its existence is yielding steps of progress toward a more just and equitable future.
Becoming more optimistic (realistically so) doesn’t necessarily take time, money, or sweat, but it does require attention, assessment of one’s assumptions and thoughts, and the willingness to look for perspectives that yield expectations of better outcomes. Doing so improves wellbeing today, while increasing the likelihood of more healthy tomorrows.
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor, Director of Research, and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.
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