An optimistic outlook may be more important for good health than commonly realized. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that optimism, especially among the elderly, helps people live longer.
In 1975, older residents in a small Ohio town volunteered for a long study of well-being and retirement. When the study ended four years ago, some were no longer alive. To understand how they differed from those who survived, Yale University demographer Becca Levy and her colleagues focused on what had been rarely studied before - the participants' attitudes toward aging.
Ms. Levy says that participants described how they felt about getting old at the onset of the study. "To give you an example, one of the questions was 'As you get older, you are less useful?' So they were asked whether they thought it was true or false," she said.
The researchers looked to see if participants' responses correlated with their lifespans. They did. The researchers found that those who viewed aging positively outlived those who did not by an average of 7.5 years. To the investigators' surprise, health-related factors such as body weight, exercise, cholesterol, and smoking did not predict survival as strongly as the attitudes did.
A psychologist who specializes in the elderly, Stanford Singer, says the findings do not surprise him.
"In my clinical experience, having a positive attitude towards aging, having a positive attitude towards mostly everything, is certainly conducive to good health," he said.
But Dr. Singer adds that this does not guarantee longevity.
"I've seen patients who have really lousy attitudes have incredibly long longevity, and I've seen it the other way around," he says. "I've seen people who have very positive attitudes die very young."
Researchers cannot explain how the link between positive outlook and longevity works. Does a good attitude lower physically harmful stress hormones? The head of the International Longevity Center in New York, Robert Butler, says part of the answer may be social.
"If you feel positive about yourself, you are more likely to be engaged in positive relationships with other people and that can have practical as well as other consequences," he said. "For example, having someone with whom one is intimately involved also means that you have someone that protects you, for example, fetches medications for you if you are sick or takes you to the doctor."
The author of the book Defy Aging, psychologist Michael Brickey, points out that being positive about getting old is not easy, because society often portrays the elderly as physically and mentally frail, lonely, and sedentary. But Mr. Brickey says there are many examples of people who defy that image, such as George Dawson of Dallas, Texas, who learned to read and write six years ago at age 98.
"You are tempted to say, 'Oh, I am having senior moments. I can't learn a new language or something,' and I look at George Dawson and there is no excuse left," he said. "If he can learn to read and write at 98, then certainly we can learn French at 60 or whatever."
Indeed, aging has many positive aspects, in the opinion of the director of the Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, Suzanne Kunkel, a co-author of the study on attitudes and longevity. Among the good things about being older are having more time, being a grandparent, possessing wisdom, and becoming more spiritual. Ms. Kunkel says that to age gracefully, people should accept growing old as a harmonious continuation of their lives.
"Later life is a stage of life, same as any other stage, and it carries with it challenges, benefits, joys, losses, but that's a part of being human," she says.
The researchers say they hope that this message will help people lead both happier - and longer - lives.