Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you always tend to look on the bright side or do you tend to focus on the worst case scenario? Well, here’s news that will make you optimists feel even sunnier, and make you pessimists a bit more gloomy: a growing body of scientific evidence is demonstrating that people who go through life with a positive outlook not only enjoy better health but actually tend to live longer.
One of the latest articles to make the point that optimists tend to outlive their more pessimistic counterparts is this recent column published in the New York Times, written by personal health columnist Jane E. Brody. She writes that researchers are discovering how cultivating positive attitudes, or what Brody calls “hallmarks of people sometimes called ‘cockeyed optimists,’” can lift your spirits, improve your health, and extend your life. “Studies have shown an indisputable link between having a positive outlook and health benefits like lower blood pressure, less heart disease, better weight control and healthier blood sugar levels,” she says.
Brody adds, “There is no longer any doubt that what happens in the brain influences what happens in the body.” Researchers now can demonstrate how, when facing a health crisis, the process of intentionally cultivating positive emotions strengthens the immune system and helps overcome symptoms of depression.
To us at AgingOptions, this is important information. That’s because, as we help clients, seminar guests and radio listeners think about the things that go into a healthy and satisfying retirement, we want to make sure we’re giving people all the tools they need to improve their lives and their longevity. And it turns out that some of the traits that help optimists live longer can actually be learned, even when dealing with extreme circumstances such as a major health crisis. As Jane Brody writes, “New research is demonstrating that people can learn skills that help them experience more positive emotions (even) when faced with the severe stress of a life-threatening illness.”
The New York Times article cited the example of a Dallas-based author who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. According to Brody, “During the next 15 years of treatments for eight relapses of her cancer, she set the stage for happiness and hope by such measures as surrounding herself with people who lift her spirits, keeping a daily gratitude journal, doing something good for someone else, and watching funny, uplifting movies.” The result is promising: her cancer has been in remission for twelve years.
One doctor in Chicago, Judith Moskowitz of Northwestern University, developed a set of eight skills to help foster positive emotion. These skills were then tested in a group of people who had recently been diagnosed with H.I.V. The result of the research project showed that the main goal of the test – helping people feel more positive and calm in the face of a health crisis – was achieved in patients who practiced at least some of these eight skills. Then similar research was done with patients dealing with type 2 diabetes, patients with breast cancer, and people caring for loved ones with dementia. In every study the “positive thinking” skills not only improved emotions and reduced depression but also led to more sociability, better eating habits, and greater levels of physical activity – all markers of better health.
So what are these eight “positive emotion” skills? They’re really pretty basic. Here’s the list, quoted from the New York Times:
- Recognize a positive event each day.
- Savor that event and log it in a journal or tell someone about it.
- Start a daily gratitude journal.
- List a personal strength and note how you used it.
- Set an attainable goal and note your progress.
- Report a relatively minor stress and list ways to reappraise the event positively.
- Recognize and practice small acts of kindness daily.
- Practice mindfulness, focusing on the here and now rather than the past or future.
Finally, Jane Brody’s New York Times article includes a reference to a Yale University study of 4,000 people age 50 and older. This study, like others, demonstrated that those with a positive view of aging were happier and healthier and they lived longer. Of course, there were the expected psychological benefits of positive thinking including decreased stress and an increase in healthier behaviors. But there were measurable physiological benefits, too. Those with positive views of aging had lower levels of what physicians call C-reactive protein, which is a biological marker of stress-related inflammation, associated with various diseases including heart disease. Bottom line, says the Yale study: the optimists “lived significantly longer.”
Living longer is a worthwhile goal, but only if your quality of life matches your quantity of life. How about you? Do you worry about outliving your assets, or about becoming a burden to those you love? What about being forced into institutional care against your wishes? None of those things needs to happen – but you definitely need a plan, and that’s where AgingOptions can help. Our approach to retirement planning is called LifePlanning because we focus on all the vital aspects of your life in retirement, making certain you are protected financially and legally, that your medical needs are met, that your housing choices are the right ones and that your family supports your wishes. LifePlanning is the key to a fruitful and secure retirement. If this sounds intriguing, we invite you to come to one of our free LifePlanning Seminars, conducted at convenient locations around the Puget Sound region, to learn more. You’ll come away with valuable information that we assure you has the power to enhance your quality of life as you age.
For seminar details and online registration, click here, or call us during the week and we’ll gladly assist you. Age on!
(originally reported at www.nytimes.com)