A Harvard study shows that optimistic women live longer

All in the attitude.
All in the attitude.
Image: Reuters/Enrique Castro
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Optimism is a potent drug.

A study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published Dec. 7 in the American Journal of Epidemiology shows that women who have a positive outlook have a much lower risk of dying from serious illnesses, especially cardiovascular diseases. According to the study, a higher degree of optimism coincided with a lower mortality risk from cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, and infection.

The study tracked the data of 70,000 women enrolled in the ongoing Nurses’ Health Study. Participants in the study were asked to take a version of the the Life Orientation Test, designed to measure optimism, first 2004 and again in 2008. Respondents were asked to rank to what degree they endorsed positive statements such as: “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.” They were also asked to what degree they agreed with negatively worded statements, and given negative scores accordingly. Those who had a higher composite score were classified as having higher levels of optimism.

The results show that the most optimistic women were nearly 30% less likely to die from the diseases tracked in the study than the least optimistic.

Given the new findings, scientists say that making an effort to be more optimistic might be as important as other preventative measures.

“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,” said Eric Kim, research fellow and co-lead author of the study, in a press release. He added that while one way to explain the findings is that optimism leads to healthier behavior, this does not entirely explain the finding. Thinking positive thoughts might also directly impact the body’s biological systems.

Being positive isn’t an unconscious decision, and whether you are positive or negative isn’t entirely out of your control, according to Martin E.P. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. In his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Seligman argues that we can train our minds to be more optimistic by, for example, actively rejecting negative thoughts when they arise.

So a long healthy life, could be, all in the mind.