Optimists live longer, new study says

Researchers out of BU and Harvard discovered that people who think more positively tend to live longer. Now they want to know why.

When people reach a certain age, everyone wants to know how they did it. One woman, who was 109 at the time, said the trick to a long life is “staying away from men.” A 106-year-old Montana resident said the real secret is “good genes and perhaps bourbon, water, and Cheetos.”

Research published Monday indicates the key might actually be positive thinking.

The study, conducted by Harvard and Boston University academics, found that optimistic thinking is tied to the odds of living an exceptionally long life.

Researchers linked optimism to an 11 to 15 percent longer lifespan and greater odds of living past age 85.

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Optimism had already been linked to lower chronic disease and premature death rates, but this new study sought to determine whether positive thinking could actually make people live longer.

Even the study itself seemed to have a glass-half-full outlook. It didn’t look into how to prevent death; it searched for ways to extend life.

“Often when we do research and make recommendations about how people can stay healthy, we look at the absence,” said researcher Fran Grodstein, a professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “There are many more positive ways of thinking about our health.”

The project analyzed data from two prior studies: one that followed women for 10 years and another that followed men for 30. Both studies relied on surveys that asked carefully crafted questions about the participants’ outlooks.

Grodstein pointed out that while traditional population research tends to focus on concrete measures such as diet and exercise, her team looked into concepts less easy to measure. She said Harvard professor Laura Kubzansky, another researcher on the team, is a pioneer in placing importance on researching factors such as attitude.

Lewina Lee, one of the researchers and an assistant professor of psychiatry at BU School of Medicine, said optimism typically refers to a general expectation that good things will happen or a belief that “the future will be favorable because we can control important outcomes.”

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The results of the study were independent of other factors such as depression, socioeconomic status, smoking, alcohol use, and more.

Grodstein said the team is now hoping to use its findings to continue learning more about optimism. The next step is to find out why optimists live longer.