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How Optimism Can Help You Live Longer

Adopting a glass-half-full mentality may lower your risk of stroke and depression.

Having an optimistic outlook does more than just help the mind; it can help your physical health, too. In a 2004 study of 1,000 men and women aged 65 to 85, people who described themselves as being optimistic, or more hopeful, had a 55 percent lower risk of all causes of death compared to those who were pessimistic, or more negative. But, what exactly is optimism?

“Optimism is about a willingness to frame one’s attitude about the future, to consider factors one can control and to focus on ways one can engage positive change,” says psychologist Andrea Smith, PhD, of Medical City Green Oaks Hospital in Dallas, Texas.

Reframing the mind to become more positive may seem tough, but it’s easier than you think. Here’s how optimism helps both your mind and your body, plus some easy ways you can practice positivity.

How optimism affects your mental and emotional health
Optimistic people tend to show more activity in the left frontal lobe of the brain, which controls language, communication, and frame of mind--and you may be able to increase this activity by changing your outlook. And, good news: You can build a thicker left frontal lobe by changing your outlook.

“The lens through which we view situations has a direct bearing on our level of stress and experience with conditions like anxiety and depression,” says Dr. Smith. She suggests you can switch a negative viewpoint to a more positive one by consciously changing the way you approach those situations. For example, instead of saying that something is too complicated, tell yourself that you will tackle it from a different angle. Instead of believing there’s no way something will work, reframe your thinking and try and make it work the best you can.

Developing that optimistic attitude can help your mental health in the following ways:

  • Reduces anxiety
  • Fosters coping skills
  • Lowers risk of depression
  • Encourages positive behavior

How optimism affects your physical health
In another study, researchers looked at 545 men over 15 years, and found that those who had a positive outlook about the future were 55 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those who had a more negative outlook. Overall, the optimists avoided preventative causes of heart disease and other health conditions, increasing their longevity.

“A positive outlook enables you to cope better with stressful situations and reduces the harmful health effects of stress on your body," says Smith. Optimistic people also live healthier lifestyles by becoming more interested in physical activity, following a healthier diet and having reduced rates of smoking and alcohol consumption.

Research has linked optimism to more health benefits including:

  • A stronger immune system
  • May help with treatment of HIV-infected men
  • Reduced risk of stroke
  • Improves your cardiovascular health

It may seem difficult at first, but practicing a positive attitude is similar to training a muscle. The more you work it out, the stronger it becomes.

4 ways to think more optimistically 
Becoming an optimistic person doesn’t happen overnight, but there are ways to cultivate a positive or optimistic mindset, including:

1. Laugh every day
Laughter really is the best medicine; it reduces stress and anxiety, and helps bring people together. Try watching a funny movie, spending a night out at a comedy club or playing games with friends to get started. Over time, you might notice that your attitude starts to shift.

2. Practice gratitude
Grateful people have been known to take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet and regular physical examinations,” says Smith.

Practicing gratitude also helps manage stress and encourages healthier relationships. Try it out by writing down a few things you're thankful for each morning. Later, if your mood or attitude starts to nosedive, reflect on the things you’ve written down.

3. Surround yourself with positive people
Optimism can be contagious. If you’re trying to adjust your attitude, spend time with supportive and positive people, and avoid pessimists if possible.

4. Be kind to yourself
Speak positively about yourself and others. For example, turn “I can’t” talk into “I can” talk. Smith suggests that you simply say one positive thing about yourself each morning and repeat it throughout your day.

Eventually your inner monologue will contain less self-criticism and more self-acceptance. “Consider the attitude and subsequent behavior of an ‘optimist,’” says Smith. “They are approaching the future by considering what they can do to make the best of it.”