Looking Forward: The Power of Optimism to Improve Health & Longevity

By Daisy Robinton, PhD

Jun 22, 2022

Looking Forward: The Power of Optimism to Improve Health & Longevity Looking Forward: The Power of Optimism to Improve Health & Longevity

For the vast majority of people, growing older tends to mean looking older, slowing down, and losing our faculties. Aging is not thought of in positive terms. Today, however, there is a movement gaining momentum that is revolutionizing the way that we age. The #LookForward Project that RoC Skincare is launching amplifies an exciting area of research around aging –the power of optimism to improve health, well-being, and longevity.

 

It’s helpful to first define optimism, which can be thought of as a psychological attribute that is often defined as a general expectation that good things will happen. Or, rather, believing that the future will likely be favorable because we are able to control important outcomes in our lives. Optimists tend to direct their attention to positive aspects and deprioritize negative ones. They believe that they own their decisions. Optimists tend to attribute their achievements to internal, stable factors. And most interestingly, optimism is shown to have a significant impact on health and well-being.

 

With each passing day, month, year, our bodies are aging. In fact, we are aging in the womb even before we are born! And while so much about aging feels outside of our control, there are several practical tools available to every person – regardless of age, race, gender, social class, or background -- that can improve your health and well-being and possibly even extend your life.

 

When the RoC team approached me in 2021 about partnering to investigate how optimism relates to health and aging, I began a meta-analysis of the literature covering optimism and how it relates to health, longevity, and well-being. The findings were astounding: across scores of studies, research has demonstrated that individuals with a positive outlook on life – or those who hold an optimistic outlook –

    • have higher levels of subjective well-being,
    • are less likely to suffer from chronic disease, and
    • are at decreased risk of premature death<sup>[1]</sup>.

 

Similarly, optimism has been linked to better outcomes on multiple measures of physical and mental function<sup>[2]</sup>. It influences and is a significant predictor of health outcomes and markers relating to<sup>[3]</sup>

    • Mortality<sup>[4]</sup>,
    • Cardiovascular disease<sup>[5]</sup>,
    • Immune function<sup>[6][7]</sup>,
    • Cancer outcomes<sup>[8][9]</sup>,
    • Pregnancy outcomes<sup>[10]</sup>,
    • Physical symptoms, and
    • Pain<sup>[11]</sup>.

 

At the molecular level, optimism reduces stress, is linked to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol<sup>[12]</sup>, lower blood pressures, and promotes production of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Optimistic women have lower levels of two key markers of inflammation<sup>[13]</sup>. And a 2006 study found that healthy volunteers were less likely to develop viral symptoms when given a respiratory virus if they held a positive outlook – a striking result particularly resonant in this pandemic era we are all living through. 

 

What we know now is that optimism is a psychological asset, and one that promotes healthy and resilient aging<sup>[14][15][16]</sup>. In fact, just earlier this month (June 2022) a study was published out of Harvard University which found that higher levels of optimism were associated with longer lifespans and living past 90 in women across racial and ethnic groups<sup>[17]</sup>. Optimism has been linked to 11-15% longer lifespan<sup>[18]</sup>, suggesting that optimism is a powerful tool to improve health and well-being in humans. And, this effect is ‘dose dependent’ – meaning, the higher your optimism levels, the greater the positive impact tends to be on your health and lifespan<sup>[19]</sup>.

 

Perhaps most importantly, optimism is modifiable, learnable, and able to be developed via relatively simple techniques or therapies<sup>[20][21]</sup>.

 

These findings prompted RoC Skincare and me to embark on a study of over 600 women in the U.S. and France to better understand their attitudes about aging and whether we could improve these sentiments to make a positive impact on women’s experience of aging. Interestingly, women who feel optimistic about aging are less likely to report physical changes in their skin such as wrinkles, fine lines and dark under eyes. And, as we began sharing the evidence for the power of optimism with these women, we saw their motivation to engage with an optimism practice grow dramatically.


So how can you start? What if you don’t feel like an optimist? Luckily there are many straightforward ways to begin a practice that supports an optimistic outlook.

  • Exercise ranks high on the list here as an important way to regulate mood and emotions alongside its physical benefits.
    • Just 20 minutes a day can significantly impact your mood and well-being
  • Meditation supports cultivation of an optimistic outlook<sup>[22][23]</sup>.
  • Starting a gratitude practice
    • This can be simple – tell a friend, or your partner, or write down in a journal one thing you are grateful for each day. This can be as simple as “I am grateful for the beautiful flower that bloomed in my neighbor’s yard this week,” or “I had a delicious cookie, and it was amazing!” It can be a simple, small moment of your day. Beginning to record or share these moments of appreciation and gratitude can significantly impact your outlook and mood.
  • Similarly, a daily journaling practice supports mental health and well-being.
    • Similar to the gratitude practice, consider adding a simple prompt such as recording one act of kindness you witnessed or offered each day.
  • Employing mindfulness techniques can be powerful to connect you to the beauty of simple things and the gift of this life.
  • Spending time outside, connecting to nature, will help clear stress and boost your mood<sup>[24]</sup>.
    • Too difficult to make it outside regularly? Most of us spend 85% of our time indoors, so try livening up your home or office with lush indoor plants.
    • Having indoor plants boosts emotional well-being<sup>[25]</sup>
  • Imagine your dream life 5-10 years down the line.
    • Dozens of studies support the notion that imagining your ideal future boosts your optimism levels<sup>[26]</sup>.
    • Try with a visualization exercise once a week for one to two months. Spend 6-8 minutes focusing on your best possible self in one important dimension of your life, such as health, family, romance or career.

 

Thankfully, it’s never too late to begin. Using one (or several!) of the simple tools listed above, and consistent practice, you’ll be on your way to a brighter future, more healthful living, and perhaps a longer life as well. Here’s to #LookingForward together!

 

           

Publication Citations

 

[1] Giltay EJ et al. Dispositional optimism and all-cause and cardiovascular mortality in a prospective cohort of elderly Dutch men and women. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2004.

[2] Maruta T. Optimism-Pessimism Assessed in the 1960s and Self-reported Health Status 30 Years Later. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2002.

[3] Rasmussen HN. Optimism and Physical Health: A Meta-analytic Review. Ann Behav Med 2009.

[4] Kim ES et al. Optimism and cause-specific mortality: A prospective cohort study. Am J Epidemiol, 2017.

[5] Giltay EJ et al. Dispositional optimism and all-cause and cardiovascular mortality in a prospective cohort of elderly Dutch men and women. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2004.

[6] Ikeda A et al. Optimism in relation to inflammation and endothelial dysfunction in older men: The VA normative aging study. Psychosom Med, 2011.

[7] Roy et al. Association of optimism and pessimism with inflammation and hemostasis in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Psychosom Med, 2010.

[8] Kim ES et al. Optimism and cause-specific mortality: A prospective cohort study. Am J Epidemiol. 2017

[9] Rasmussen HN. Optimism and Physical Health: A Meta-analytic Review. Ann Behav Med 2009.

[10] Rasmussen HN. Optimism and Physical Health: A Meta-analytic Review. Ann Behav Med 2009.

[11] Rasmussen HN. Optimism and Physical Health: A Meta-analytic Review. Ann Behav Med 2009.

[12] Steptoe et al. Neuroendocrine and inflammatory factors associated with positive affect in healthy men and women: the Whitehall II study. Am J Epidemiol, 2008.

[13] Steptoe et al. Neuroendocrine and inflammatory factors associated with positive affect in healthy men and women: the Whitehall II study. Am J Epidemiol, 2008.

[14] James P et al. Optimism and healthy aging in women. Am J Prev Med, 2019.

[15] Lee et al. Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women. PNAS, 2019.

[16] O’Connor KJ et al. Longer, more optimistic, lives: Historic optimism and life expectancy in the United States. Jol Econ Behav Org, 2019.

[17] Koga et al. Optimism, lifestyle and longevity in a racially diverse cohort of women. Jol of American Geriatrics Society, 2022.

[18] Lee et al. Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women. PNAS, 2019.

[19] Lee et al. Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women. PNAS, 2019.

[20] Meevissen YMC et al. Become more optimistic by imagining a best possible self: Effects of a two-week intervention. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry, 2011.

[21] Malouff JM et al. Can psychological interventions increase optimism? A meta-analysis. J Posit Psychol, 2017.

[22] Patricia Sanborn Vroom. Meditation as a moderator of the effect of optimism. Columbia University, 2002.

[23] Koopmann-Holm et al. Compassion meditation can increase optimism towards a transgressor. Cogn Emot, 2020.

[24] Van der Wal et al. Do natural landscapes reduce future discounting in humans? Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences, 2013.

[25] Pérez-Urrestarazua et al. Particularities of having plants at home during the confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Urban For Urban Greening, 2021.

[26] Loveday et al. The Best Possible Selves Intervention: A review of the literature to evaluate efficacy and guide future research. Jol of Happiness Studies, 2016.