Women Who Cop This Attitude Live Longer!
American philosopher and psychologist William James said, “Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.”
It’s a quote that makes sense to most American women. We’re a positive nation on the whole, and believe in having hope for the future. We know that if we can approach each day with an optimistic attitude, things are likely to go better for us than they would if we set out each morning with frowns on our faces.
A recent study suggests that optimism may do a lot more for women than give them hope or happiness, however. Researchers at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health observed data from 70,000 women, and found that those who were more optimistic actually had a better chance of living longer lives!
What does this mean for us? After all, we can’t always put smiles on our faces. There are days when things just aren’t good, and no amount of attempts to “be positive” will make them better. What actions do we really need to take in our lives to enjoy the benefits of this overall healthy attitude?
Study Shows Optimistic Women Live Longer
For the study, researchers used data from the Nurses’ Health Study, which included 70,021 women. They measured levels of optimism in 2004, and then assessed mortality rates between 2006 and 2012. They wanted to see how women’s attitudes affected their health outcomes, particularly with cardiovascular disease.
Overall, they found that a higher degree of optimism was associated with a lower mortality risk. After adjusting for other factors like sociodemographic characteristics and health behaviors, they found that women with the highest levels of optimism had about a 30 percent lower risk of dying compared to women with the lowest levels of optimism.
More specifically, the most optimistic women had a:
- 16 percent lower risk of dying from cancer,
- 38 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease,
- 39 percent lower risk of dying from stroke,
- 38 percent lower risk of dying from respiratory disease,
- and a 52 percent lower risk of dying from infection.
Why would this be? Researchers theorized that in general, women who are optimistic are less likely to be stressed out. They focus on their more positive emotions, and on how they can make each situation better, retaining a sense of control. Feeling out of control is directly related to higher stress levels, which can then increase heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of the stress hormone “cortisol” in the blood—all factors that can, over time, increase risk of cardiovascular disease.
“Optimistic people,” said Dr. Richa Sood, an internist at the Mayo Clinic, “because they feel that they can make some change, have this philosophy approach that ‘I can do something rather than avoidance.’ Also, in terms of approach, they are likely to do right things. They are likely to ask for help, from medical facilities, from their friends, or tap into internal resources to get their positive emotions going.”
Optimistic Women are Self-Compassionate
In addition to feeling like they can change a situation, and being able to ask for help, optimistic women, the researchers found, tend to be more compassionate with themselves than pessimistic women.
If you’re not sure whether or not you have the right optimistic attitude, ask yourself this: “When I make a mistake, do I forgive myself, or spend days criticizing and berating myself?”
If you’re the type to forgive and treat yourself kindly, you’re likely to fit the researchers’ definition of optimistic. Unfortunately, many women have trouble with this one. We are more likely to doubt ourselves, and to be harder on ourselves than we would be on others. One good takeaway from this study is that we must be more compassionate with ourselves for the sake of our health and longevity.
“Women have a lot of self-doubt,” said Dr. Sood. “We probably peg our self-worth on things least well done rather than on what we do well. So that doesn’t give us the good, positive energy. But if we could focus on the ‘I tried my best, pat on the back, I will do better next time,’ that’s optimism, and we are caring for ourselves.”
This part of the study surprised me, personally. When I think of being optimistic, I think of trying to see the silver lining in each situation, and of having hope and positive feelings about the future. I never equated self-compassion with optimism, but this study suggests that we should.
Kristen Neff, psychology professor at the University of Texas and author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, told The Atlantic that overall, women tend to be less self-compassionate than men, because they are often more focused on self-sacrifice and on meeting the needs of others.
“Women are told they should not take care of themselves,” she says, “that they should always be outwardly focused.” But this can negatively affect our physical health, say nothing of our emotional health. “There’s some work on physical health,” Neff says, “showing that self-compassion is linked to better immune function….Self-compassionate people are healthier, they take better care of themselves, they are more likely to exercise and eat well, more likely to go to the doctor. Self-compassion is caring about yourself and not wanting yourself to suffer.”
5 Ways to Become More Optimistic
Considering these findings, how can we all become more optimistic? Below are several suggestions that may help. Even if you don’t think you’re a particularly optimistic woman, you can improve. Dr. Kaitlin Hagan, one of the lead researchers on this study, told Harvard Women’s Health Watch that people can change:
“Previous studies have shown that optimism can be instilled by something as simple as having people think about the best possible outcomes for various areas of their lives.”
Dr. Sood agrees, stating that optimism can be learned, and that if women can be optimistic, “they are more likely to have more incremental benefit in their health outcomes compared to men.”
1. Keep a gratitude journal.
Many studies have shown that having an attitude of gratitude is good for us. Optimistic people tend to “look on the bright side.” You can generate these feelings in yourself by keeping a journal in which you record five good things that happened to you each day. Some days it will be easy to find those five things. On the days when it’s more difficult, choose the basics: you didn’t go hungry, you had a roof over your head, someone spoke a kind word to you. Just reminding yourself of the little things that were positive in your day can help relieve stress and improve your mood.
2. When the negative train comes, distract yourself.
We can all get caught in negative thinking. Everything is going wrong. It’s all my fault. If only I’d been smarter and done this rather than that. When will I ever learn?
When you find yourself ruminating over the bad stuff, distract yourself. Give yourself something else to do that will keep your mind busy. Turn on some upbeat music, call a good (positive) friend, clean something, run an errand, or simply go for a run.
Get yourself involved in an activity that requires your focus and attention so you can leave the negativity behind. You don’t have to solve the problem first. Just distract yourself, and you’ll be able to attain a more positive frame of mind—which makes it easier to come up with the solution you need.
3. Practice self-compassion.
Neff says that the easiest way to do this is to treat yourself as you would your very close friend. When you find yourself criticizing or otherwise being hard on yourself, stop and ask, “What would I say to a close friend about this?” Talk it out. Actually say what you would say, and then direct that same type of approach back to yourself.
Neff also suggests some form of physical touch that encourages self-compassion. You can place your hand over your heart, give yourself a hug, or wrap yourself in a warm blanket. It may seem a little goofy at first, but mind and body are closely related. Do one of these things and you’ll automatically feel more cared for. Your physical self will respond by becoming more relaxed.
4. Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the practice of learning to live in the moment. It may involve meditation, but it can also involve paying attention to your thoughts and feelings without judging them.
Practicing mindfulness can help you deal more successfully with unpleasant events. If you’re staying in the moment, you’re more likely to avoid catastrophic thinking about the future, and keep your focus on what you need to do right now to make things better.
This can help us to feel more in control, which reduces stress. (Read more about cultivating mindfulness in our previous article.)
5. Spend more time with optimistic people.
Negative, pessimistic people sap our energy. If you’ve got negative friends that you’re spending a lot of time with, it’s going to be really hard for you to feel more optimistic. You’ll be battling the pessimistic attitudes around you, which creates an uphill battle.
Instead, cultivate your relationships with more positive friends, as they will help boost your mood and increase your hope for the future. If most of your friends are negative Nancy’s, join some new clubs or groups or take a new class to find some women who are more positive in general.
Just Think About It
One more thing you can do that has proven effective in a 2011 study is simply spending five minutes imagining your future self in a positive light. Your job is going great, your kids are thriving, your house is a dream, and you have achieved everything you wanted to achieve. Things are just going great, overall.
Researchers found that when people did this, they significantly increased their optimism after the first day and even after two weeks. So you can use this technique whenever you want to, and enjoy a more positive attitude.
Over time, you can develop the habit of optimism, which may be just as important to your long-term health as eating a healthy diet and exercising every day.
Eric S. Kim, et al., “Optimism and Cause-Specific Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study,” Am J Epidemiol., January 4, 2017; 185(1):21-29, https://academic.oup.com/aje/article-abstract/185/1/21/2631298/Optimism-and-Cause-Specific-Mortality-A?redirectedFrom=fulltext.
“Can Optimism Boost Women’s Lives?” Mayo Clinic Women’s Health, June 9, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/can-optimism-boost-womens-lives_us_593afa5be4b014ae8c69e032.
Olga Khazan, “Why Self-Compassion Works Better than Self-Esteem,” The Atlantic, May 6, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/05/why-self-compassion-works-better-than-self-esteem/481473/.
“Look on the bright side and maybe even live longer,” Harvard Women’s Health Watch, February 2017, http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/look-on-the-bright-side-and-maybe-even-live-longer.
Meevissen YM, et al., “Become more optimistic by imagining a best possible self: effects of a two week intervention,” J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry, September 2011; 42(3):371-8, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21450262.
Karinna Hurley, “It’s Surprisingly Easy to Become an Optimistic Person,” Scientific American, November 22, 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/it-s-surprisingly-easy-to-become-an-optimistic-person/.