Why Positivity Matters

OPTIMISTS ARE HEALTHIER, WEALTHIER, AND HAPPIER. AND IT’S A MINDSET ANYONE CAN CULTIVATE.

I HAVE LONG thought of myself as a happy pessimist. I’m not dour, gloomy, or depressive. In fact, a friend once accused me of being “too smiley.” But when faced with uncertain circumstances—if my husband wakes up with a cough, say, or my elderly mom doesn’t answer her phone—my mind ignores the benign possibilities and sprints toward worst-case-scenarios, which it fixates on, like a dog intent on a squirrel, until proven wrong. Given the choice between believing that good things will happen—the definition of optimism—and worrying that bad things might, you can reliably find me doomscrolling.

But a while back, new research with hard-to-ignore headlines, like “Optimism Is Associated with Exceptional Longevity” and “Life Is Better with a Half-Full Glass,” began landing on my desk, forcing me to question my fatalistic perspective. So I decided to find out: What, aside from rose-colored glasses, do positive thinkers get to enjoy that I don’t? And if a more hopeful mindset really is beneficial, can a doubter like me transform herself into someone who expects things to turn out for the best?

The Perks of Being an Optimist

Researchers call people who live to be 85 or older “exceptional agers.” I aspire to be among them. (I’m a pessimist, not a fool.) But optimists are more likely to achieve that ambitious goal, according to a study published in 2019. To arrive at that disconcerting (for pessimists) conclusion, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health combed through data from a subset of participants in two previous long-term studies—69,744 women from the 10-year Nurses’ Health Study and 1,429 men from the 30-year Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study; both measured participants’ optimism with a standard scientific questionnaire. “We controlled for a number of factors that we know can affect health, like socioeconomic status, underlying health conditions, depression, and health behaviors—and optimism was still correlated strongly with living to be 85 or older,” says Claudia Trudel-Fitzgerald, PhD, a research scientist at Chan and one of the study’s authors. The average life expectancy in the U.S. is 80, so a cheery outlook can give you an impressive boost—possibly even more than exercise.

The more optimistic people are, the longer they live, according to Harvard research.

I’ve always believed my running and hiking routine was the most potent anti-aging medicine available. Logging the recommended 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise increases life expectancy by between 0.4 and 6.9 years, according to German researchers. But Trudel-Fitzgerald and her colleagues found that optimists live 11 to 15 percent longer than less optimistic people. So if a pessimist lives till 80, an optimist is likely to live till 90 or older. And it’s dose-dependent. The more optimistic you are, the longer you live.

“We’re still not sure why optimism is so protective,” Trudel-Fitzgerald admits. “It could be that optimists have lower levels of inflammation or higher levels of good cholesterol or healthier bacteria in their guts. Or maybe people who are optimistic have more nourishing relationships, and that helps them stay healthy and live longer.”

Close social connections confer all sorts of mental and physical benefits, and optimists are probably more likely to reap them. “Studies show that optimists have longer-lasting, deeper, and more supportive friendships, even though they don’t necessarily have more friends than less optimistic people,” says William Chopik, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology and the director of the Close Relationships Lab at Michigan State University. “They’re better at solving problems with friends and loved ones too.”

There’s also some evidence that those glass-half-fullers might be a tiny bit delusional when it comes to relationships—but that ends up working in their favor as well. “Optimists perceive that they’re surrounded by extremely supportive people, even if their friends and loved ones aren’t extraordinarily supportive,” says Chopik. Indeed, when Stanford researchers studied 108 couples, they found that optimists perceived greater social support from their partners. But when the researchers teased apart the data, they realized that optimists’ partners weren’t actually more supportive than those of the pessimists. Nevertheless, couples in which there was more perceived social support were happier. Buoyant creatures that they are, optimists tend to celebrate the support they get (even if it’s iffy) instead of sulking about what they don’t. And it actually helps them—and their loved ones—feel happier and closer.

A sanguine perspective can help anyone, regardless of age or gender, feel more deeply embedded in the social fabric, research shows. Optimistic incoming college students had greater increases in perceived social support over the course of the first semester than less optimistic students, for instance, and optimistic men over 70 were less lonely than their pessimistic peers, in spite of the fact that their social groups had all begun to shrink due to retirement and the death of friends. Optimists may see the negatives in social relationships. “But they focus on the strengths of their friends and loved ones,” so they find the relationships more satisfying and more nourishing, says Trudel-Fitzgerald.

An upbeat attitude helps optimists shine at work too. When Michelle Gielan, a positive-psychology researcher and author of Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change, and her husband, researcher Shawn Achor, assessed the optimism levels of professionals at hundreds of companies, they found that so-called visionary work optimists—those who scored in the top 25 percent on an optimism assessment—were 40 percent more likely than pessimists to get promoted in the coming year, six times as likely to feel highly engaged at work, and one-fifth as likely to burn out.

“Optimists don’t just believe that good things will happen; they believe their behavior matters and that they have the ability to change things, so they’re more likely to take action and make progress toward their goals,” says Gielan.

They’re also better at handling stress, which can be helpful in most careers. And they’re more likely to give themselves credit for the good things that happen to them—not publicly, but in their own minds—which bolsters their competence and confidence and often translates to career success, adds Gielan.

Oh, and if all that isn’t enough to send a pessimist like me into a self-doubt spiral, optimists are also better with money. Gielan partnered with Frost Bank on a survey of more than 2,000 people in the U.S. to ascertain how optimism affects financial well-being. What they found: “Optimists enjoy seven times higher levels of financial well-being than pessimists,” says Gielan. They stress less often about money—81 days a year compared with pessimists’ 226. And they’re more likely to save money, feel as if they know how to manage their finances, make progress toward financial goals, seek financial advice from experts, and learn from their financial mistakes—findings that apply regardless of how wealthy people are, the size of their paycheck, and other socioeconomic factors. “Most people have times when they’re worried about finances or experience financial hardship,” says Gielan, “but optimists believe they can do something to change their fortunes, and they take the necessary steps to do so.”

There’s Hope for All of Us

If you self-identify as a pessimist, some good news: You’re probably more positive than you think. (Pessimists see even their own mindset from a glass-half-empty perspective.) “When we test people’s levels of optimism on a 1 to 5 point scale, the vast majority are above the midpoint,” says Chopik. “We’ve found that to be true across cultures and ages. Many people are a mix of both. You might be optimistic about work, for instance, but pessimistic about dating or weight loss. Even people who are fairly strongly optimistic probably have realms in which they don’t expect positive outcomes, and vice versa.”

That’s because our experiences shape our points of view. “Twin studies find that about 25 percent of optimism is inherited, so there’s plenty of room for environmental factors to tip the scales one way or the other,” says Chopik. Given the fact that so many people face tough life challenges—health problems, financial setbacks, loss, systemic racism—you might think that people would become more pessimistic with age. I would think that, anyway. Turns out, I’d be wrong.

In the results of a survey published in 2020 of 75,000 people in the U.S., Germany, and the Netherlands who ranged in age from 16 to 101, Chopik and his colleagues found that optimism increased throughout young adulthood, and it continued to rise into midlife, only slightly declining in older adulthood. One possible reason: As the years tick by, it starts dawning on most of us that life is short, and we’d be better off steering clear of things that bring us down and investing time and energy in activities and people that make us happy, says Chopik. Happier people, he adds, are more optimistic.

“What was really surprising was that people who had bad experiences, like divorce or the death of a loved one, still felt like good things would happen in the future,” he says. Partly, he speculates, that has to do with the fact that the bulk of most people’s experiences are positive, so they outweigh the negative. When good things happen in your personal and work life—you fall in love, have a job you enjoy, or reach your goals, whether it’s cleaning the garage or climbing Everest—it makes you more confident that positive things will come your way.

Intrigued by all this happy talk, I decided to test my own optimism with the Revised Life Orientation Test, a 10-item quiz that is commonly used in optimism studies. It includes statements like “In uncertain times I usually expect the best” and “If something can go wrong for me, it will,” which you answer on a 5-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” When I tallied my score, I was at the low end of the “moderately optimistic” range. I felt like Harry Potter when he discovers he’s a wizard. I have latent positive-thinking powers I didn’t know I possessed. And researchers say that I, and my more decisively glass-half-empty brethren, can grow and develop these skills.

When good things happen, such as you get a promotion, give yourself credit and acknowledge that you were responsible for bringing it about.

“Optimism interventions tend to focus on identifying and changing the automatic thinking styles that pessimists have adopted,” says Chopik. For instance, if an optimist won the lottery, she’d focus on all the good things she could do with the money, while a pessimist might grouse about the fact that the government will take a chunk of it. “If you can catch those negative thoughts while you’re having them, you might be able to replace them with more positive ones,” says Chopik.

Another thing to try, says Chopik: When good things happen, such as you get a promotion, give yourself credit and acknowledge that you were responsible for bringing it about—maybe you knocked it out of the park on a presentation or you have a terrific attitude.

It is also smart to set goals, says Julia Boehm, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Chapman University in Orange, California. “Achieving goals helps you believe in yourself and your ability to be successful in the future,” she explains. But make them realistic, she adds: “If you set a goal to work out every day and you just can’t find the time, aim for three days a week instead.”

To foster close relationships, Gielan suggests sending a short email to a different person every day, thanking them or praising them. “It gives you a chance to think about all the people you care about and who care about you—and it enhances those important social connections,” she says. “I’ve recommended this strategy to lots of people, and I hear over and over, ‘This practice changed my life.’ It’s simple but powerful.” If that’s not your style, Trudel-Fitzgerald shares this idea: Every time you have a negative thought about a friend or loved one, think of something you love about them. “Seeing the good helps you appreciate the relationship more fully.”

There’s one more habit Gielan recommends: Start the day with gratitude. “For two minutes, just think about what you’re grateful for. When you take time every day to consciously focus on the good things, positive thinking becomes more habitual.” One study found that when pessimists started a daily gratitude practice, they became more hopeful after two weeks.

“No matter what your age, you can train your brain to see things from a brighter perspective,” says Gielan, an avowed optimist. Here’s what surprises me: I believe her.

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