How Optimism Can Help You Live Longer

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

Two seniors laughing over breakfast

Medically reviewed in November 2022

Updated on November 16, 2022

Having an optimistic outlook does more than just help the mind. It may benefit your physical health and longevity, too. 

For example, a large 2022 study of racially and ethnically diverse women published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society found that those who were most optimistic had a 5.4 percent longer lifespan than those who were least optimistic. And more than half of the most optimistic women had an exceptionally long lifespan, living 90 or more years. 

But what is optimism, exactly, and how can we work towards achieving it?

“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 Andrea Slaughter, PhD, a psychologist in Dallas, Texas.

Reframing the mind to become more positive could be easier than you think. Here’s how optimism helps 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. You may be able to increase this activity 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 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. Or, instead of not starting a task because you’ve never tried it before, think of it as an opportunity to learn something new.

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

  • Reducing anxiety
  • Fostering coping skills
  • Lowering your risk of depression
  • Encouraging positive behavior

How optimism affects your physical health
Research has shown that thinking positively could improve your health, especially if you are dealing with a chronic disease or severe health condition. In people with diabetes, for instance, having a positive outlook has been associated with lowered risk of depression, better blood glucose control, and improved longevity. A 2017 article in Psycho-Oncology also found that optimism training helped reduce depression in women with metastatic breast cancer.  

But that’s not all. Research has also suggested that having a positive outlook could help people with cancer, cardiovascular disease, or HIV manage their condition and, as a result, increase 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 may also live healthier lifestyles by becoming more interested in physical activity, following a healthier diet, and having reduced rates of smoking and alcohol consumption.

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

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

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

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 drop, reflect on the things you’ve written down.

Hang out with positive people. Optimism can be contagious. If you’re trying to adjust your attitude, spend time with supportive and positive people.

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.”

Article sources open article sources

Koga HK, Trudel-Fitzgerald C, et al. Optimism, lifestyle, and longevity in a racially diverse cohort of women. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 2022; 70: 2793–2804.
Dolcos S, Hu Y, et al. Optimism and the brain: trait optimism mediates the protective role of the orbitofrontal cortex gray matter volume against anxiety. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 Feb;11(2):263-71.
Nemours Teen Health. Optimism. Accessed November 16, 2022.
Mayo Clinic. Positive thinking: Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress. Page last updated February 3, 2022. 
Cohn MA, Pietrucha ME, et al. An online positive affect skills intervention reduces depression in adults with type 2 diabetes. J Posit Psychol. 2014 Jan 1;9(6):523-534. 
Cheung EO, Cohn, MA, et al. A randomized pilot trial of a positive affect skill intervention (lessons in linking affect and coping) for women with metastatic breast cancer. Psycho-oncology. 2017; 26: 2101–2108.
Conversano C, Rotondo A, et al. Optimism and its impact on mental and physical well-being. Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health. 2010 May 14;6:25-9. 
HelpGuide.org. Laughter is the Best Medicine. Last updated November 15, 2022.
Harvard Health Publishing. Giving thanks can make you happier. August 14, 2021.

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