Higher Optimism Is Linked to Longer Life Across Ethnicities, Finds Study
Many of the greatest battles in fiction have been fought over desiring immortality — turns out that they may have got the means of getting there quite wrong. Our most famous villains may have had the opportunity to live past 90, at least, had they just been optimistic, a new study suggests.
Optimism is a contested life outlook. It is easier to find for some than for others, depending on the social and economic forces of being. There is the added danger of toxic positivity too, which can paint a disingenuous picture of the world, calling into question how “good vibes” can be damaging too.
But the new research addresses a key argument at play. Published in the American Geriatrics Society earlier this month, the study specifically looked at an ethnically diverse group of participants — noting that previous studies of this kind have predominantly included white participants. Including other ethnic groups is relevant because research points to their being more vulnerable to a range of other diseases and systemic factors that can shorten lifespans.
“We tend to focus on the negative risk factors that affect our health,” said Hayami Koga, lead author of the study. “It is also important to think about the positive resources such as optimism that may be beneficial to our health, especially if we see that these benefits are seen across racial and ethnic groups.”
The findings show that the benefits of optimism still apply across ethnic and racial lines. The researchers looked at information from 1,59,255 women from the Women’s Health Initiative in the US who enrolled from 1993 to 1998 and were between 50 and 79 years old at the time of enrolment. The researchers followed up with these women over a period of 26 years. The numbers showed that 25% of the most optimistic in his cohort had a 10% greater likelihood of living past 90, as compared to the 25% of the least optimistic.
Given that the dataset in this study, however, included older people, it could mean that not accounting for a younger cohort may be a blindspot. Both internet culture, anecdotal evidence and hard research shows millennials and Gen Z people struggling to cope with worsening climate change, political realities, and the general state of the world that can make it hard to be optimistic. In this way, the study may place the onus of optimism on individuals alone — but the fact that it applies across groups that have been linked with higher mortality rates could give us pause.
“Higher optimism was associated with longer lifespan and a greater likelihood of achieving exceptional longevity overall and across racial and ethnic groups,” the authors wrote in the study.
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The study adds weight to a body of research that tries to show the impact of psychological factors on mortality and morbidity. While it may sound pithy and eye-roll-inducing to say that optimism can make us live longer, the idea holds ground in that positive motivation could be used as a health intervention to promote longevity and quality of life.
A 2019 study, for instance, found that optimism was linked to a 35% lower chance of adverse cardiovascular events, like heart attacks or strokes. It is also associated with lower blood sugar and cholesterol. Even the immune system can benefit from more optimism, according to another study. Optimism has also been shown to be associated with healthier styles of living overall, as well as better coping mechanisms to deal with illnesses — all of which could play a role in optimism improving health outcomes overall.
That said, optimism or advocating for positive thinking cannot replace health policies or strategies entirely. “During a dire, life-altering health crisis, the attitude easily becomes shorthand for denial, enabling institutional apathy, and letting people in power evade accountability,” Saumya Kalia wrote for The Swaddle, about how the Indian government touted the rhetoric of positive thinking during the devastation of the Covid19 pandemic in the country.
Moreover, it also matters who can afford to be more optimistic, and by default are associated with higher levels of optimism. Non-Hispanic White women emerged on top in this particular study — showing how systems and institutions that can impact people’s lives are as important in elevating people’s optimism. The study offers merely one way to look at improving one’s chances in the gamble that is life — the question of how to get there remains to be answered.