Chin Up: Optimism for Aging Well

Senior Black woman looking upwards and smiling.

The Dalai Lama said, “Choose to be optimistic. It feels better.” The great news is that optimism not only feels better, but it makes aging better! Recent research reaffirmed the link between optimism and healthier, longer living.

One study examined data from 150,000 diverse women aged 50–79. It found that women who were the highest on the optimism scale lived over four years longer than those who were at the lowest end. In addition, the most optimistic women were also move likely to live over 90 years, considered to be exceptional longevity. And, while healthy behaviors of the more optimistic women did account for 25% of the link between optimism and longevity, other factors likely influence the other 75%.

Another study showed that optimism changes how adults interact with stress. Optimistic men experienced fewer negative emotions, mostly by reducing their daily exposure to stress. Optimism may help seniors avoid, redirect from, or reframe stressful situations. Stress reduction has been previously linked with health and well-being.

So, how can you keep your chin up and be more optimistic? Here are four actions to try.

Decide to be positive. That doesn’t mean bad things will suddenly stop happening; it does mean you have free will to decide to be optimistic. A little investment in positivity can go a long way. One study found that thinking about a positive future for just five minutes can significantly increase optimism over the next two weeks.

Accept that things may indeed go your way. Typically, we protect ourselves from disappointment by preparing for and expecting the worst. Though this seems like a smart approach, it may actually be doing us harm. “Positive anticipation” can bring joy and is valuable to experience. Try to focus on positive expectations—which might may by sometimes be wrong—instead of focusing on the negative ones, which are only sometimes right. As Dr. Laura Oliff of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy points out, “Many of the negative things we predict never actually happen”

Practice an attitude of gratitude. Being thankful is a natural ally of optimism. Recognizing what you are grateful for, from big to small, boosts positivity. Many people keep a gratitude journal to track their moments of appreciation, whether it’s a sunny day or a big achievement. Don’t forget to share this gratitude; writing a letter to someone you are thankful for delivers a double dose of optimism, for you and that individual!

Talk yourself up. Excessive negative thoughts, especially those of self-doubt, can quickly turn any situation into a pessimism spiral. When that internal negative voice creeps in, challenge it! Argue with yourself, reframing the issue and adding additional context. Think of it as an external influencer trying to make you miserable. Dr. Martin Seligman, author of The Hope Circuit, explains that this self-arguing is “not instantaneous. But on the other hand, it’s not really onerous and difficult. It’s something that most people can acquire in a few days.”

An optimistic mindset will make life longer and more enjoyable. We are all fortunate to have the chance at better health and aging.

Sources: National Institute on Aging; Scientific American; VeryWell Mind; New York Times.