June 7, 2018
Be Optimistic. You Might Live Longer!
People who have a college education are known to live longer. But could a sunny disposition also help?
Yes, say two researchers, who found that the most optimistic people – levels 4 and 5 on a 5-point optimism scale – live longer than the pessimists.
But this effect works both ways. The biggest declines in optimism have occurred among older generations of Americans who didn’t complete high school at a time when this was far more common. It’s no coincidence, their study concluded, that the white Americans in this less-educated group in particular are also “driving premature mortality trends today.”
The finding adds new perspective to a 2015 study that rocked the economics profession. Two Princeton professors found that, despite improving life expectancy for the nation as a whole, death rates increased for a roughly similar group: white, middle-aged Americans – ages 45-54 – with no more than a high school degree. They suggest that addiction and suicide play some role, both of which have something to do with the deterioration in the manufacturing industry that once provided a good living, especially for white men.
To make the link between mortality and optimism, Kelsey O’Connor at STATEC Research in Luxembourg and Carol Graham at the Brookings Institution examined whether heads of households surveyed back in 1968 through 1975 were still alive four to five decades later. They controlled for demographic characteristics and socioeconomic factors, such as education, which also affect longevity.
One group clearly emerged as having the biggest increase in their level of optimism: women who are the head of their households, perhaps because of widening job options for women, including single mothers, starting in the late 1980s.
The researchers said they don’t want to overlook something else that is going on but is difficult to tease out – that optimism and education can reinforce each other, and, in turn, influence longevity.
For example, they find that optimistic people are more educated and make more money – and it’s already widely known that people who earn more live longer. On the other hand, teenagers who start life out with a dreary outlook might choose not to go to college and invest in their future, unwittingly subtracting a few years from their lives.
The good news is that we have a modicum of control over how long we live. If people can improve their outlook – not always easy to do – “they could live longer,” the researchers said.
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