Health and Wellness

A new study of 159,255 women reveals that optimists are more likely to live past age 90—here's why

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There's a secret to living longer, and it's cheaper than green juice and meditative retreats.

On Wednesday, the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society published a study suggesting that optimistic people – defined as those with a "generalized expectation of positive future outcomes" – had a higher likelihood of living past age 90 than anyone else.

The findings, gathered across 26 years of study from 159,255 racially diverse women with a wide array of backgrounds, found that optimistic participants lived 5.4% longer than their non-optimistic counterparts – translating to roughly four more years of life.

The findings build on a 2019 study from Harvard University and Boston University, which found that optimistic men and women live 11% to 15% longer, on average. The 2019 study concluded that highly positive people were the most likely group to live to age 85 or older, but admitted that its participants "were mostly white and had a high socioeconomic status than the general population."

Wednesday's findings reveal that optimism "may promote health and longevity" across diverse racial and socioeconomic groups, too.

For natural-born optimists, that's great news. For anyone else, it's a potential challenge: As clinical health psychologist Natalie Dattilo told the Washington Post in 2020, simply avoiding difficult situations as a way of cultivating a positive mindset can be deeply damaging.

"Toxic positivity stems from the idea that the best or only way to cope with a bad situation is put a positive spin on it and not dwell on the negative," Dattilo said. "[It's like] trying to shove ice cream into somebody's face when they don't really feel like having ice cream."

Rather, developing an optimistic mindset involves accepting and processing negative feelings – by knowing that they'll eventually pass, leaving space for a brighter future.

"It's OK to have a positive and optimistic outlook and feel sad at the same time," Dattilo said. "We can feel sad and be grieving and still look forward to the future. Both of those are necessary for a healthy outlook and sense of well-being."

On average, Americans currently live until age 77, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the country's mindset may be shifting in a positive direction, even after a tough past couple years: In a July 2021 Gallup poll, 59.2% of American participants said they were thriving and 73% said they'd experienced enjoyment at least once in the prior 24 hours.

That's important: Wednesday's study reported that stressful experiences often have a psychological impact on people's optimism, and that optimists can often leverage "greater social support [and] use problem-solving and planning strategies to minimize health risks."

Optimists are also "better able to regulate emotions and behavior," the study noted.

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