Optimism Adds Years
When Norman Vincent Peale wrote the Power of Positive Thinking, he didn't focus on longevity as one of the benefits of happy thoughts. The many imitators who have followed him, including the authors of The Secret, also don't hype long life as a chief benefit of thinking positive. On the other hand, I actually devoted a whole chapter, "The Thought that Kills," to the subject in Lessons from the Miracle Doctors. And in fact, several major studies over the years have backed me up and discovered that optimistic thinking does result in longer life.
The latest study to confirm this link comes from The University of Pittsburgh, where researchers culled data from the Women's Health Initiative study of more than 100,000 women over age 50 followed since 1994. The researchers found that optimistic subjects were 14 percent more likely to still be alive eight years into the study, and nine percent less likely to develop heart disease. Also, confirming the old sorcery idea that if you send out hostility it may come back to strangle you, the study found that women who hold hostile thoughts toward others or who are mistrustful do seem to suffer a boomerang effect, with hostility upping the risk of dying by 16 percent within the eight-year window. (What can I say? I love each and every one of you reading this.)
The researchers ascertained just how optimistic the subjects were by asking them to respond to a series of standardized statements such as, "If something can go wrong for me, it will," "In unclear times, I usually expect the best," "I've often had to take orders from someone who didn't know as much as I did," and, "It's safest to trust nobody." Apparently, even after controlling for other health issues and lifestyle factors (none of the women had cancer or heart disease at the outset), the optimists outlived the pessimists. Study director, Dr. Hillary Tindle of the University of Pittsburgh comments, "Taking into account income, education, health behaviors like controlling blood pressure and whether or not you are physically active, whether or not you drink or smoke, we still see optimists with a decreased risk of death compared to pessimists."
As a side note, race plays a role in the happy-thoughts factor, with black women particularly vulnerable to death by misery. The pessimistic black women in the study had a whopping 33% greater risk of dying compared to their optimistic cohorts. Researchers don't know why this discrepancy occurs. Also, earlier studies found that gender counts, with optimism playing an even greater role in longevity for men than for women.
One study that confirmed the gender factor also found a far stronger correlation between optimism and longevity than the current research. According to that study, which was led by Dr. Erik Giltay of the Psychiatric Center GGC in Delft, the Netherlands in 2004, optimists have a 55-percent reduced risk of death from all causes. The subjects included about 1000 men and women aged 65-85 who completed a 30-item "optimism" test. The most optimistic subjects not only lived longer than the least optimistic over a 15-year period; they also had a 23 percent reduced chance of death by cardiovascular event.
The authors of that study wrote in The Archives of General Psychiatry, "We found that the trait of optimism was an important long-term determinant of all causes [of death] and cardiovascular mortality in elderly subjects independent of socio-demographic characteristics and cardiovascular risk factors. A predisposition toward optimism seemed to provide a survival benefit in elderly subjects with relatively short life expectancies otherwise."
Why does optimism seem to up the lifespan? The researchers essentially shrug their shoulders, although Dr. Tindle does put forth two theories. First, upbeat people tend to have more friends and larger social networks, which means that they probably get more support during crises. Also, they handle stress better, which means they not only stay happier, but their bodies manage the physiological impact of stress better. Then again, as I point out in Miracle Doctors, there are numerous studies that identify the direct connection between what you think and your immune system. Happy thoughts jack up your immune system. Unhappy thoughts shut it down. That alone would have a major impact on life expectancy.
So what can you do if you're not naturally ebullient but you would like to live longer (despite your belief that it will be a long, miserable haul)? Find ways to handle your stress. One previous study of monks and nuns in Hamburg, Germany found that the monastic life leads to longevity, which the researchers attribute to the routine and lack of stress encountered by the cloistered subjects. Short of entering the monastery, though, maybe Stuart Smalley (Al Franken) was onto something. No matter what went wrong in his life, he was always able to affirm, "I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And doggone it, people like me."