Can Optimism and Life Enjoyment Help People Live Longer?
by Lisa DiFalco
Those that want to live longer and healthier lives may only need to adjust their perspective. New studies show that optimism and taking time out to enjoy oneself may contribute significantly to health outcomes. Pessimists may have more health problems as well as those that are not taking the time to experience joyful moments.
Does this mean an end to the recommendations for exercise and healthy diets for optimal health? It is too soon to tell. What is known is that there appears to be a positive relationship between an optimistic attitude and a range of serious health conditions and that people who have higher rates of life enjoyment have a lower risk of death. Learn more about the recent research bringing attention to the positive impact of optimism and life enjoyment.
Women and an Optimistic Attitude
Optimism may give women an edge in living longer and healthier lives. A new study, recently published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, looked at the impact of optimism on over 70,000 women in 2004 and 2008. When the study started, the average female participant was 70 years of age. A number of interesting findings emerged. Researchers found that:
- Women ranking in the 75th optimism percentile and up experienced a decreased risk of death from factors such as respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke and cancer.
- Optimism was an “effective preventative” for cardiovascular disease. Optimistic women had a 40 percent decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
The level of optimism that one has can directly influence general health. It is possible to work towards a more optimistic attitude as behavior is not entirely predetermined or outside of one’s control. Eric D. Kim, research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and lead author, said:
“People can have low optimism for a wide array of reasons. Twin studies show it’s about 25 percent heritable, but that means it’s 75 percent social circumstances or under our own control.”
Other studies support such findings. Research out of the University of Illinois in 2015 showed that optimists, when compared with pessimists, had double the likelihood of having better heart health. The study, Optimism and Cardiovascular Health: Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), involved 6,814 adults aged 45 to 84 and was a large multi-center cohort study done across multiple US regions.
It appears that an optimistic attitude may not only improve heart health but reduce the risk of developing other potentially deadly conditions and infections. Kim shared:
“While most medical and public health efforts today focus on reducing risk factors for diseases, evidence has been mounting that enhancing psychological resilience may also make a difference. Our new findings suggest that we should make efforts to boost optimism, which has been shown to be associated with healthier behaviors and healthier ways of coping with life challenges.”
Get More Out of Life and Live Longer
What may be ahead for those that consistently enjoy their lives? Research from The University College London (UCL) wanted to answer the question:
“How important is sustained well-being?”
The research published in The BMJ wanted to review the result of sustained enjoyment of life reported by participants over several years and any correlation with rates of death. This research was an outgrowth of a similar study on enjoyment of life during a single event.
The participants of the UCL study were 9,365 adults with an average age of 63 years. The assessment occurred three times every other year over the period of 2002 to 2006, and deaths were noted until 2013. Questionnaires were used to gather information. A four-point scale was used for rating agreement with statements. The statements included:
- “I enjoy the things that I do.”
- “I enjoy being in the company of others.”
- “On balance, I look back on my life with a sense of happiness.”
- “I feel full of energy these days.”
Survey results showed that 2,262 or 24 percent of participants provided information that indicated they experienced “no high levels of life enjoyment on any occasion.” As for other participants:
- 1,833 or 20 percent had one;
- 2,063 or 22 percent had two; and
- 3,205 or 34 percent had three events of high enjoyment.
During the period that followed, researchers noted 1,310 deaths. It was found that the death rate was “progressively higher” for individuals who stated fewer periods of high enjoyment. When compared with those that state no enjoyment, data showed:
- 17 percent less “risk of death from all causes” from those that stated two “high enjoyment” instances; and
- 24 percent lower risk in individuals that shared that they experienced three instances of “high enjoyment.”
Those who were younger, wealthier, well-educated, employed, married or cohabitating appeared to report more instances of enjoyment. In addition, women were more likely to report high life enjoyment events. Authors wrote:
“These results add a new dimension to understanding the significance of subjective well-being for physical health outcomes by documenting a dose-response association with sustained well-being. This complements previous findings on well-being intensity, and demonstrating significant effects after controlling for a wide range of potential confounders.”
Why Are These Studies Important?
People do not have to be wealthy to have an optimistic nature and enjoy associated health benefits. In addition, even though youth, wealth and education may play a role in occurrences of “high enjoyment,” such instances can also occur in relationships and with the employed. People can choose to work on developing a more optimistic viewpoint and take measures to bring more joy into their lives by maintaining important social connections as well as contributing in ways to increase their personal enjoyment throughout their lives. For those concerned about their own health or the health of patients that they serve, it may be useful to acknowledge the impact of attitude and joy on health outcomes and mortality.