Do you look on the brighter side of life? Are you a glass half full or glass half empty kind of person? Are your spectacles tinted with rose? There are many phrases that people use to indicate where someone falls in terms of their outlook on life. Short-hand ways of indicating whether you are someone who is more likely to find faults and problems, or someone who always thinks things will work out ok (or somewhere in between).  Optimism and pessimism both have their benefits and challenges, and it is useful to have a bit of both as a way of making sure your view of the future is realistic. However, the evidence is increasingly showing that having a healthy dose of optimism is good not only for your brain but also for your health and longevity.

Optimism and control

So, to start with, how do scientists define optimism?

Well, they suggest it is “the general expectation that good things will happen or the belief that the future will be favorable because one can control important outcomes.” In other words, you have both a positive outlook and a belief that you can control the success of your goals – you can control your destiny.

Often when people talk about optimism, they focus on the “happy outlook” side of things, but this second part – the belief that you have control of an outcome – is also crucial to driving success when it comes to optimism. This sense of being in control means that you are more likely to be flexible in your approach to solving a problem. You try one thing, then, when that doesn’t work you switch your approach and try another.  All with the belief that your actions can influence the outcome, rather than giving in to the assumption that circumstances beyond your control will dictate the likelihood of success or failure.

Living a Long Life
optimism neuroscience

In the past, research has shown that higher levels of optimism are associated with lower levels of chronic disease and a lower chance of dying prematurely. 

 Moreover, their research suggests that “optimism is specifically related to 11 to 15% longer life span, on average, and to greater odds of achieving “exceptional longevity,” that is, living to the age of 85 or beyond”.

That’s pretty impressive numbers. But how did they get to this result?

Well, they tracked a large group of people – 69,744 women and 1,429 men to be precise – over several decades. The women had been monitored since 1976, whilst the men had been observed since 1961. During this time they completed various demographics, health and psychological assessments, including a measure assessing their level of optimism. For the women, their optimism was assessed using a scale called the Life Orientation Test-Revised whilst the men had their optimism assessed using the Revised Optimism-Pessimism Scale (the difference in scales was due to the fact that the male and female data were taken from different studies).

The relationships between optimism and longevity

The researchers then recorded mortality rates to see how long the individuals lived as well as the occurrence of various health complaints and diseases. They then performed a statistical analysis to determine the relationship between optimism and longevity, in particular looking at whether optimism was linked with living older than 85 years old (considered by scientists to reflect “exceptional longevity”).

They also adjusted for other confounding factors such as age, education level, health status, and depression, etc. to get a clearer picture of the real relationships between optimism and longevity so that it wasn’t biased by other potentially influencing factors.

What this all showed was that the group of people who scored highest for optimism had a lifespan that was 14.9% longer than the group who scored the lowest for optimism. They were also one and a half times more likely to survive to age 85. 

Correlations not causes

Of course, one caveat with studies like this is that they were looking at the relationship between two factors, without being able to confirm that the relationship is causal – in other words, you can’t say from this result that higher optimism causes increased longevity. It just means that there is something about optimism that results in people living a life which lasts longer.

So what might this “something” be? Well scientists aren’t really sure, but in the paper they suggest that “optimistic individuals tend to have goals and the confidence to reach them; thus, optimism may foster health-promoting habits and bolster resistance of unhealthy impulses through greater engagement with one’s goals, more effective problem-solving, and adjustment of goals when they become unattainable”.

In other words, the benefit doesn’t come from “being happy all the time.” It comes from the way that people approach, set, modify and persevere with their goals, as well as their ability to be flexible and resilient when coming across problems on the path to achieving those goals.

If you want to find out more about how to promote optimistic goal-setting or interventions which can help promote optimistic problem-solving in your organization, then please get in touch with us at Synaptic Potential.

Check out more resources in our Learning Hub to find out more about how brains work and how they are critical to organisational development.

Email us at info@synapticpotential.com to discuss your organisational priorities.