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  • Elaine Way

Optimists Live Longer!

Scientists from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), National Centre for PTSD at VA Boston Healthcare System and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, have found that individuals who have greater levels of optimism and a positive mind-set are more likely to live longer and to achieve ‘exceptional longevity’, living to age 85 or older.

Optimism, similar to our understanding of a positive mind-set, refers to a positive outlook and general expectation that good things will happen, or believing that the future will be favourable because we believe we can effect or control important outcomes. This is a very important study because while a great deal of research has previously concentrated on risk factors that increase the likelihood of diseases and premature death, much less is known about positive psychosocial or psychological factors that can promote healthy aging and longevity.

The Study

The impressive and carefully constructed study was based on 69,744 women and 1,429 men. Both groups completed survey measures to assess their level of optimism, as well as their overall health and health habits such as diet, smoking and alcohol use. Women were followed for 10 years, while the men were followed for 30 years. When the individuals were compared, based on their initial levels of optimism, researchers found that the most optimistic men and women demonstrated, on average, an 11 to 15 % longer lifespan and had 50-70 % greater odds of reaching 85 years old compared to the least optimistic groups. The results were maintained after accounting for age, demographic factors such as educational attainment, chronic diseases, depression and also health behaviours, such as alcohol use, exercise, diet and primary care visits.

"While research has identified many risk factors for diseases and premature death, we know relatively less about positive psychosocial factors that can promote healthy aging," explained corresponding author Lewina Lee, PhD, clinical research psychologist at the National Center for PTSD at VA Boston."This study has strong public health relevance because it suggests that optimism is one such psychosocial asset that has the potential to extend the human lifespan. Interestingly, optimism may be modifiable using relatively simple techniques or therapies." The theory is that optimists may find it easier to control emotions and therefore be protected from the negative effects of stress. Significantly, the researchers also said that pessimists could benefit from doing things like imagining a future where everything turns out well – an idea that is very much at the heart the Solution Focused approach.

Optimism and the Solution Focused Approach

Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT), at the forefront of what many describe as 'positive psychotherapy', is recognised for it's positive ‘future-focused’ approach with clients rather than the older ‘problem-centred’ approach which would spend much of the session time asking a client to focus on what historically caused the problems. In contrast, SFBT focuses on a client's 'best hopes' and therefore is fundamentally optimistic as a therapy modality, as it makes positive assumptions the client is not only the expert on their own life - contrary to the stance taken by older therapy models - but that clients are fully able to find their own solutions to issues while remaining hopeful and optimistic for the future. As such, SFBT is an exercise in finding and identifying hope rather than concentrating on the problems of the present or past. We identify the client's ‘preferred future’, allowing people to imagine a positive and detailed visualisation of a future where their issue isn’t a problem or no longer exists. You can't really be more optimistic than that!

A Case Study

Even when clients who seem to lack much optimism for the future, a good and well trained SFBT therapist will be able to ask questions that identify and amplify a client’s optimism, even if on first arrival it is well-hidden.

Jonathan* was a client of mine who first contacted me because he was struggling to get out of bed due to bouts of depression that also seemed to involve overwhelming physical symptoms of grumbling pains, aches, headaches and fatigue. He would be in bed for five or six days at a time. His doctor could find no physical issues to speak of and suggested he try anti-depressants. Jonathan had tried these for a few months, but found that these and two other types of psychotherapy hadn’t resulted in any noticeable change, affected his sense of taste and he wasn't keen on trying more medication. He explained that his first email to me was simply a cry of frustration.

When I suggested, as a result of his first email that he came in to see me for a consultation, he refused point blank. Jonathan felt any more therapy would simply be 'a waste of time' and it was be clear that he would never be ‘better’ as he was, in his words, ‘entirely without hope’ and in a 'dark place'. However, I asked him to notice why it was that he had first sent me an email, if he was not intending to come for more therapy. His response – ‘I suppose I just want things to get better somehow’. There was the optimism we needed – even if it was only a little spark. When he noticed and accepted that he was actually hoping for a better future, he came in to work with me and we ‘fanned’ that spark of optimism until, anxiety and low mood improved. In sessions we were able to build up a more detailed picture of what 'better somehow' looked like to him and gently work towards achieving that.

As sessions progressed, Jonathan began to notice more things about himself. For example, he realised that he felt better when he had been outdoors. He reflected that it was his sense of 'not being needed' and a 'lack of purpose' that were really keeping him feeling down.

As he challenged his negative thoughts and we worked on his perception, also rediscovering qualities and strengths he had developed at earlier times in his life, he soon noticed that he was doing more with his day. One session began with news that he had joined a local volunteering group. Soon, he couldn’t remember the last time he had taken to his bed feeling unwell.

It would be difficult (and not my role) to say whether the physical symptoms were an actual manifestation of his stress and depression, but as his mood improved slowly and his optimism grew, he certainly experienced fewer physical complaints. As a result, he felt fit to adopt a rescue dog, began to enjoy long walks and reported feeling a renewed sense of purpose. Not once did we ever need to talk about whether he had depression or why he might have had depression, we simply focused on the future and how he wanted it to be, one step at a time, allowing him to develop a sense of optimism and better coping skills.

If the results of the new study are correct, then Jonathan's increased levels of optimism may well have had a very positive impact on his health and longevity. Certainly his life became more enjoyable as a result of identifying his optimism and changing his mindset. His rate of physical exercise had increased and his exposure to daylight had also benefitted as a result of being out and about.

So exactly how does optimism affect longevity?

While the new research study identifies a clear link between optimism and longevity, it doesn’t specifically identify how optimism helps people attain longer life. However, there are a number of sensible assumptions that can be made based on the science we know already. "Other research suggests that more optimistic people may be able to regulate emotions and behavior as well as bounce back from stressors and difficulties more effectively," said senior author Laura Kubzansky, PhD, MPH. “The researchers also consider that more optimistic people tend to have healthier habits, such as being more likely to engage in more exercise and less likely to smoke, which could extend lifespan. "

"Initial evidence from other studies suggests that more optimistic people tend to have goals and the confidence to reach them, are more effective in problem-solving, and they may be better at regulating their emotions during stressful situations," noted senior author Fran Grodstein, ScD, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "Our study contributes to scientific knowledge on health assets that may protect against mortality risk and promote resilient aging. We hope that our findings will inspire further research on interventions to enhance positive health assets that may improve the public's health with ageing."

Joining the Dots

We know from other research that stress can negatively impact our immune system, which may have a bearing on our longevity. Stress and anxiety, during which we are also more likely to be pessimistic - wreaks havoc on the mind and body. Until recently, it had not been clear exactly how stress influences disease and health. Now researchers such as Carnegie Mellon University's Sheldon Cohen are finding that chronic psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate it’s inflammatory response – and an inability to regulate inflammation can promote the development and progression of disease. Ageing is inevitable and this research allows us even more of an insight into how we should aim to take care of ourselves. It’s not just about taking care of our physical health – mental health and wellbeing is another crucial part of that jigsaw. We can’t stop difficult or challenging things happening to us in life because we can’t always control events. We can, however, control our thoughts around them and work to ensure that we feel we are coping positively and are somewhat in control of the outcome, making the very best of each situation.

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*Names and identifying features of clients are changed to respect confidentiality and anonnymity

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