An encouraging study conducted by Harvard researchers found that having an optimistic outlook on life may help people live longer.

Credit: Estitxu Carton.

The study only included women, but the results should be significant for everyone. What researchers found, over a period of 8 years, is that women who were generally optimistic had a significantly reduced risk of dying from several major causes of death — including cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, and infection. Some of this can be attributed to optimistic people generally heaving healthier lifestyles, but a possibility is that higher optimism directly impacts our biological systems.

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

Out of the 70,000 women enrolled in the study, the most optimistic 25% had a nearly 30 percent lower risk of dying from any of the diseases analyzed, compared to the least optimistic 25% of women. The most noticeable difference was in cases of infection – there was a 52 percent lower risk of dying from infection, a striking difference.

Researchers only analyzed the correlation and didn’t attempt to determine the cause for which this happens. There may be a layer of biological resistance brought on by a positive outlook, but this is all speculation at this point. Still, as far as I could find, this is the first study to correlate optimism with the risk of the most common major diseases. It could help doctors find better approaches to treat said diseases, and might indicate that psychological help is also key in some therapies.

“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 postdoctoral research fellow Kaitlin Hagan, co-lead author of the study. “Encouraging use of these interventions could be an innovative way to enhance health in the future.”

Journal Reference: Optimism and Cause-Specific Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study.