In 2011, a couple of American professors of psychology published a landmark study of what would allow people to live longer.
It was called The Longevity Project, and Oprah loved it. So did social analyst nerd Malcolm Gladwell.
One of the things it became famous for was putting a knife through the idea that cheerfulness and optimism provided a pathway to extending your pensioner years.
The professors argued that kids who were cheerful and optimistic were blinkered to dangers and more likely to take risks that might see them wrapped around a traffic light or drowning in a fast-moving river.
Boring old “conscientiousness” was the magic ingredient to living long, these professors said. Doing the things you need to do, as a matter of routine, would buy you many more tomorrows.
Occasionally the evidence turns up on the evening news when the oldest woman in the world explains why she’s lived to 112. She never smoked, she never drank and tended to avoid sexual intercourse like the plague.
She never thought she’d live so long, and she never went so far as to hope for it.
Optimism makes a comeback
Recent research has found that optimism does indeed make for a longer life.
A 2019 study that involved following a group of men around for 30 years (and a group of women for 10 years) concluded that “optimism is specifically related to 11 to 15 per cent longer life span on average”.
The researchers, from Boston University School of Medicine, found that optimism “gave greater odds of achieving ‘exceptional longevity’ – that is, living to the age of 85 or beyond”.
This was independent of socioeconomic status, health conditions, depression, social integration and health behaviours, including smoking and drinking.
Overall, the researchers said, “these findings suggest optimism may be an important psychosocial resource for extending life span in older adults”.
How does it do this?
The researchers didn’t know.
“Other research suggests that more optimistic people may be able to regulate emotions and behaviour as well as bounce back from stressors and difficulties more effectively,” said senior author Dr Laura Kubzansky, a Professor of Social and Behavioural Sciences.
The authors conceded: “Research on the reason why optimism matters so much remains to be done, but the link between optimism and health is becoming more evident.”
But what is optimism exactly?
The Boston researchers defined optimism as “a general expectation that good things will happen, or believing that the future will be favourable because we can control important outcomes”.
Or maybe it’s a combination of those things: A belief that life, in the main, delivers good things, and having the agency to run your life in a sensible, productive way.
A clue here is that the participants in the 2019 study tended to look after themselves. This suggests that conscientiousness may be a key component to healthy optimism. (The unhealthy kind is blowing your week’s pay on lotto tickets.)
A new study
Dr Lewina Lee was a co-author of the 2019 paper.
She’s back with a new study that investigates how optimistic people handle stress (which has negative health effects, including inflammation), as a means of understanding how and why optimism “is a health asset”.
“By looking at whether optimistic people handle day-to-day stressors differently, our findings add to knowledge about how optimism may promote good health as people age,” said Dr Lee.
She had two theories:
The buffering hypothesis suggests that higher optimism would be associated with lower emotional reactivity to daily stressors and more effective emotional recovery from them. In other words, optimistic people won’t get too worked up during arguments about household chores or traffic jams, and will bounce back pretty quickly.
The stressor exposure hypothesis suggests that optimism would preserve emotional well-being by limiting exposure to daily stressors. In other words, optimistic people are less likely to get into stressful situations in the first place.
This would therefore limit the damage that emotional stress brings on a body such as inflammation.
So what happened?
The study followed 233 older men who first completed an optimism questionnaire.
Fourteen years later, they reported daily stressors (those arguments, losing their keys) along with positive and negative moods on eight consecutive evenings up to three times over eight years.
As expected, optimistic men reported fewer bad moods and more upbeat moods.
They also reported having fewer stressors or causes for a bad mood.
But here was the crunch
When stressed, the optimists responded to stressful situations like, well, real people. Their mood was bruised and they were cheesed off. And they didn’t bounce back any faster than the pessimists.
However, they tended to avoid getting in stressful situations in the first place (avoiding traffic jams or knowing where the car keys are), or somehow (and this is where the mystery returns) they were able to “change the way they interpret situations as stressful”.
What this might mean is that in some situations, being conscientious and competent allows optimists to handle a moment that might fluster someone who doesn’t have things quite so much together.
In other words, optimism may be more a kind of confidence than wishful thinking.
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