Optimism Predicts Healthy Aging

If you expect that the future holds good things, you might be right. It’s a common idea that optimism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and psychology research has tended to back up a link between positive expectations and positive outcomes.

The latest example comes from a study by researchers at Harvard, looking at the role of optimism in healthy aging.

When we talk about optimists aging more healthily, there’s always the possibility that some people are more optimistic because they’re in good health. So the researchers designed their study to first measure people’s levels of optimism and then, over the next 6-8 years, observe how people’s health changed.

To define “healthy aging,” the researchers came up with three criteria:

  • Not having any major chronic diseases
  • Not experiencing a significant decline in cognitive functioning
  • Having good physical functioning

Next, the researchers divided participants up into four groups based on their levels of optimism at the beginning of the study. It turned out that over the course of the study, the group with the highest level of optimism was 24 percent more likely to continue aging healthily than the group with the lowest level.

These results held after the researchers considered potentially confounding variables like depression and socioeconomic status. Moreover, the researchers didn’t identify any specific health-related habits that explained the correlation between optimism and healthy aging.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, there are a couple ways that optimism may be linked to physical health. One is that people with higher levels of optimism might lead healthier lifestyles. In the case of this study, it’s possible that more optimistic participants had certain beneficial health behaviors that the researchers didn’t look at.

But optimism might also have direct physical effects. For example, it appears that people with higher levels of optimism have a different physiological response to stress. In other words, beyond just changing people’s health behaviors, optimism in and of itself could turn out to have health benefits.

This point is important because people’s levels of optimism aren’t necessarily fixed. The authors of the study argue that “optimism, a potentially modifiable health asset, merits further research for its potential to improve likelihood of health in aging.”

No doubt we all have room to become more positive in how we engage with life. And in becoming more positive, one thing to feel positive about is that feeling positive itself may have a long-term physical health payoff.