Being optimistic can help you live longer, says Harvard

A Harvard University study of women finds a link between optimism and risks of dying from a number of diseases.

Do you expect good things to happen in your life? Or do you see the world as a glass-mostly-empty kind of slog? You might want to rethink your approach because being an optimistic person may help you live longer. Such is the conclusion of a new study from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.


The eight-year study focused on women and found that the more optimistic had a notably smaller risk of dying from major causes of death like cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease and infection if compared to the less optimistic.

“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,” explained the study’s co-lead author Eric Kim, research fellow in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “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.” 

One possible way to explain their findings is that people with more positive attitudes tend to engage in healthier behaviors. But it is also likely, according to Kim, that a sunnier attitude can actually have a direct biological impact.

The research looked at data from over 70,000 women which was collected from 2004 to 2012 via the Nurses’ Health Study. That study tracked women’s health by surveying them every two years. 

The women in the top 25% on the optimism scale had a 30% less chance of dying from the analyzed diseases than women in the bottom quarter. The numbers broke down further this way - the most optimistic had a 16% lower risk of dying from cancer, 38% lower risk of dying from heart disease, 39% less risk of dying from stroke, 38% less chance of dying from respiratory disease and 52% when it came to infection.

Previous studies have already linked an optimistic outlook to lower risk of cardiovascular diseases but this study was the first to find the same kind of link to other illnesses.

How can we act on this information? The researchers think the key lies in the evidence that optimism can be learned.

“Previous studies have shown that optimism can be altered with relatively uncomplicated and low-cost interventions — even something as simple as having people write down and think about the best possible outcomes for various areas of their lives, such as careers or friendships,” said the study’s co-lead author Kaitlin Hagan, postdoctoral research fellow. “Encouraging use of these interventions could be an innovative way to enhance health in the future.”

You can read the study titled “Optimism and Cause-Specific Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study” here in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Cover photo: Participants make their way around the course during the Mud Madness event on September 25, 2016 in Portadown, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/McVities Mud Madness via Getty Images)

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