The Value of Optimism: Longer Life

November 18, 2013

  The Value of Optimism: Longer Life 

 Reference:  J Pers Soc Psychology 

 Is your glass half empty, or half full?  Haven’t you heard that question before?  And how often have you reflected on the way you answer?  Do you let yourself sink into worry about what may happen to you, and how you are trapped in the current circumstance you are in?  Or do you look forward to what you can do today and what possibilities there are laid out before you?   Are you an optimist or a pessimist? 

 Well, this study outlines the differences in terms of life expectancy.  How long we live has many variables:  class, wealth, marital status, community, smoking, exercise, food, …on and on.  To find a large body of very similar people with similar behaviors, beliefs and social status is a rare find.  Hence, the longevity studies of the School Sisters of Notre Dame is a unique opportunity.   Here, the researchers found 180 women who all had written an essay about themselves, their hopes and dreams back in their early years, and then lived very similar life styles of American Catholic Sisters in service to their various causes.  

Now, in their late 80s and 90s, with only a tiny few left, meaningful research can be completed on what happens to folks who have different emotional attitudes to what the world offers.  To be in the study, they had to have been born before 1917, and had all written their autobiography before age 32.   These essays were tracked for words and phrases with high or low positive emotions.  The groups were compared and their longevity measured with that metric being the deciding measure.  The findings were stunning.  

Those with high positive emotions lived, on average, 10.7 years longer.  That’s not a small number.  In fact, it’s up there with the Harvard Professionals Study for dramatic effect on longevity.  (5 behaviors that will add 14 years to your life if you follow all 5 at age 60: no smoking, daily exercise, weight control, good diet and a glass of wine). This study should be a clarion call to each of us to consider our own response to stress.  Stress is necessary and good for you.  It motivates you to get out of bed, get dressed and face the day. But stress can also slowly wear you down.  How each of us faces stress defines the endocrine response within us.  

An optimist thinks of life as an interesting puzzle to sort out and respond to.   Your internal cortisol response is lower and less damaging.  A pessimist continues to worry, to obsess, to panic.  The connection between unresolved stress and illness is becoming more and more defined.  This study shows us the bottom line.  If you remain pessimistic, you live a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Yes, you are doomed.   Yes, you are in trouble. The good news is: there is a way out.  You can learn to be optimistic.  There are behaviors that can change a grumpy pessimist into a sunny optimist.  That is also part of what the nuns teach us.  Living in community, in love, with meditation and acts of service – caring for others – doesn’t that sound like nuns living in their convents? If you want more links to the value of optimism: Your word use reveals the age you are likely to reach.  A positive view of life after retirement extends life expectancy. 

 WWW. What will Work for me?   I so enjoy learning these insightful truths.  In the Christian tradition Jesus says, “Don’t look back”.   That’s what I’m familiar with. But every religious tradition has similar messages.  That’s what inspires us.  It brings heaven to earth.  I live one mile from the Mother House of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.  I can see the spire of their convent from my window.  I hope I can be as optimistic as the best of them. 

 Pop Quiz

1.  An optimist looks actively for the possibilities that life has to offer?  T or F.              Answer:

That might be a nice interpretation. 

 2.   Pessimists have higher stress level hormones?  T or F                         Answer:  True.  Data not presented here, but it's out there. 

 3.   Stress hormones gradually turn into disease and shorter life spans. T or F                     Answer:   That's the key connection this study demonstrates. 

 4.  It's easy to duplicate this study.  T or F                    Answer:  False. Almost impossible as we don't have many nuns going into lives of service anymore. 

 5.   You can change from being a pessimist to being an optimist.  T or F                      Answer:  True.  There are increasingly sophisticated methods for so doing.

The column is written by John E Whitcomb, MD at Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI.