The Secret to Long Life? Optimism!

In a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, higher levels of optimism were associated with living longer and with “exceptional longevity,” defined as surviving to 85. The study reviewed data from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) of some 70,000 women and from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study (NAS) of about 1,400 men and controlled for chronic physical conditions such as hypertension or high cholesterol and lifestyle behaviors such as smoking or alcohol use.

Although optimism is affected by genetics and environmental conditions—socioeconomic status, living conditions, etc.—it can also be learned and practiced. Here are some science-backed tips for developing your sense of optimism:

Start and end your day on a positive. Spend a few moments reflecting on a positive affirmation, such as one of my free Insights, or other inspirational reading. Before you fall asleep at night, spend even a few minutes acknowledging the things that went well that day: the positive interactions, the exercise goals accomplished, the beauty you witnessed. As I often say, “Life is good, bad, and indifferent. Focus on the good.”

Practice gratitude meditation. Give conscious thanks for the blessings in your life: health, family members, friends, employment, creative outlets, food, a home. There are many scripts and recordings for guided gratitude meditations. Try one!

Strengthen your social relationships. Researchers have confirmed that optimism derives in part from strong social networks. These can be developed by spending time with extended family and close friends, participating in regularly scheduled group or community activities such as churches, service clubs, book or dinner groups, team sports, or even a regularly scheduled “Girls Night Out.”

Set and prioritize goals. Setting achievable goals each day builds confidence and a sense of progress, both of which increase optimism.

Reframe tough situations. As I’ve discussed previously, eustress is a term coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye back in the 1970s to describe good, or beneficial, stress. Selye wanted to draw a distinction between eustress and distress, stress we react to negatively. By reframing the situation that is causing us stress, we can transform it into eustress. For example, we intentionally stress our bodies in order to strengthen them, or to reach higher levels of physical performance. Similarly, we may stress our personal competence by accepting a new, more challenging position. We also stress ourselves to learn a new skill, start a new business, ask that intriguing person out on a date, or embark on a new adventure. Stress is part of any growth-producing situation. When facing a challenge, try reframing it to identify any positive aspects: if it will strengthen you, deepen your empathy, increase your knowledge or awareness, or develop a skill, you’re more likely to welcome the challenge as a positive.

Get outside. We modern humans tend to spend too much of our day narrowly focused—on the road, on a computer screen, in a cubicle. Get outside and let your vision expanded to enjoy the wide open spaces. Studies show that being outside confers vitamin D, lowers blood pressure, increases happiness, and relieves stress, anxiety, and depression. When you feel good, you’re more likely to be optimistic!

Breathe. Taking a long, slow, deep breath through your nose not only increases your physical capacity—by literally expanding your chest cavity—it also creates a pause: a little more emotional space to think clearly about a situation and affirm a positive outcome.

Want more? Read my little book, Why Have a Bad Day When You Can Have a Good Day? For even more support, along with insights into eating and exercising for health and longevity, read Conquering Cultural Stress.


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