Power of Positive
Thinking Extends, It Seems, to Aging
Do happy people live longer? A growing body of evidence suggests they
may. Recent studies have correlated long life with optimism, with positive
thinking, and with a lack of hostility, anxiety and depression.
One thing that remains unclear, however, is whether happiness can actually
cause longevity. Perhaps happy people live longer because they practice
healthy behaviors, or for some other unknown reason.
"It is definitely the case that certain people who are psychologically
healthier live longer," said Dr. Howard S. Friedman of the University
of California at Riverside, a psychologist who has studied personality
traits that correlate with longevity. "But the explanations are usually
The second open question is: What, if anything, can unhappy people do
The most recent study of personality and longevity was conducted among
a group of 660 people over 50 in Oxford, Ohio, who, in 1975, had answered
questions having to do with, among other things, their attitudes about
aging. They had been asked whether they agreed or disagreed with statements
like "Things keep getting worse as I get older," "I have
as much pep as I did last year," and "I am as happy now as I
was when I was younger."
Researchers checked to see which participants were still alive in 1998,
and they noted when the others had died. It turned out that those who
viewed aging as a positive experience lived, on average, 7.5 years longer
than those who took a darker view.
That is an advantage far greater, the researchers point out, than what
can be gained from lowering blood pressure or reducing cholesterol, each
of which has been found to lengthen life about four years. It also beats
exercise, not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight, strategies that
add one to three years.
The researchers who conducted the study have been careful not to suggest
that views of aging are more important for one's health than exercise,
nutrition and not smoking. "I think they are all important in predicting
survival," said Dr. Becca Levy, a social psychologist at Yale. But,
Dr. Levy said, it is surprising to find that a psychological characteristic
could also be such a strong predictor of life span.
In analyzing the data, Dr. Levy and her colleagues took into account race,
sex, socioeconomic status, self-reported health, overall morale and loneliness
— all factors that might have clouded the picture. But even after
statistically controlling for such characteristics, views of aging were
highly correlated with long life.
Optimism was linked to longevity in a study reported two years ago by
researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Dr. Toshihiko Maruta,
a psychiatrist, reviewed psychological tests that had been given to more
than 800 people in the early 1960's, and based on the people's responses,
he classified 197 of them as pessimistic. He then checked to see how long
Dr. Maruta found that the pessimists had a risk of death for any given
year that was 19 percent greater than average.
Other studies have drawn connections between longevity and the degree
of control people feel over their lives and between longevity and mindfulness,
defined as an awareness of one's environment and one's reactions to it.
Some research has shown that people who are relatively more depressed,
hostile or anxious are unlikely to live as long as others.
Dr. Carolyn Aldwin, a professor of human and community development at
the University of California at Davis, has reviewed many such studies
and examined another group of people who took psychological tests in the
1960's. She found that those who seemed to be relatively stable emotionally
had lived longer.
"You're better off if you are less likely to go to extremes emotionally,"
Dr. Aldwin said, "if you keep on an even keel and don't let yourself
get too upset."
How do happy, upbeat, calm people keep themselves alive?
Dr. Levy suspected that the answer might be linked to the positive thinkers'
will to live. Previous studies showing, for example, that people of all
cultures are more likely to die in the days and weeks after holidays than
they are in the days leading up to them, had suggested that will to live
could affect survival.
So Dr. Levy and her colleagues checked back to see how the respondents
had answered other questions in the original survey. In these, they had
been asked to choose from three pairs of adjectives — empty-full,
hopeless-hopeful and worthless-worthy — the ones that best described
their lives. Those who answered full, hopeful and worthy were deemed to
have the greater will to live
"Will to live
appeared to be a partial mediator," Dr. Levy said, "but it didn't
completely explain why the people with positive views lived longer. So
there must be other things involved. One likely candidate is how people
respond to stress. Older people with a negative view of aging."
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