There’s a song that tells us to “accentuate the positive.” Philosopher Norman Vincent Peale wrote a best-selling book that encouraged us to use the “power of positive thinking” to get along in life. But now, at a time when too many of us are experiencing bouts of depression due to the pernicious coronavirus pandemic, the question is: what have I got to be optimistic about?
For one thing, there is a medical consensus that you’ll live a happier and longer life by remaining optimistic. And that is backed up not with anecdotes and glib sayings, but with real, authoritative research from the Boston University School of Medicine, which found that: “After decades of research, a new study links optimism and prolonged life. Researchers have found that individuals with greater optimism are more likely to live longer and to achieve ‘exceptional longevity,’ that is, living to age 85 or older.
More than 70,000 people participated in that study, in which the National Center for PTSD at VA Boston Healthcare System and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health joined BU. They started by assessing their levels of optimism as well as the status of their health and then tracked them over periods of 10 to 30 years. What they found was “that the most optimistic men and women demonstrated, on average, an 11 to 15 percent longer lifespan, and had 50-70 percent greater odds of reaching 85 years old compared to the least optimistic groups.”
In a nutshell, optimists are people who have hope that everything will turn out alright and pessimists are those who have a negative view of life and that what can go wrong, will go wrong. But Dr. Laura Kubzansky at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health points out that “The power of optimism is not just having a sunny disposition but applying this mindset to make positive change.” She also explains that optimism can be inherited 25 to 30 percent of the time and, for those who might feel that they are not optimizing their optimistic inner selves, she offers advice.
Look for opportunities. When difficult events happen, turn your focus toward a more positive alternative. For example, if you are stuck waiting for an appointment, use this unexpected free time to call a friend or read a book. If an injury or sickness has derailed your usual workouts, focus on what you can do, like gentle stretching or using resistance bands. “These substitute activities can make you feel more positive and remind you that difficult circumstances will not necessarily continue, and you can overcome barriers to get there.”
Focus on your strengths. Here is an exercise from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Reflect on your personal strengths, like creativity, perseverance, kindness, curiosity. Choose one and plan how to use it today. For example, for perseverance, make a list of tasks you have found challenging recently, then try to tackle each one. If you choose curiosity, attempt an activity you’ve never tried before. Repeat this process every day for a week. You may use the same personal strength across multiple days or try using a different one each day. Another way to assess your character strengths is to take the free Values in Action (VIA) Survey at www.viacharacter.org/survey/account/register.
Practice gratitude. Optimists often are thankful for what they have and share it with others. Keep a gratitude journal where you list the many gifts and blessings for which you are thankful, like your current health, a kind gesture you received, a great meal you enjoyed.
Create a mental image of your best possible self. Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years? This exercise helps you address three essential questions: What are you doing now? What is important to you? What do you care about and why?
FOOTNOTE: The archives of science contain numerous studies on the topic of “exceptional longevity” and they have one thing in common, namely that those of us who live the longest have maintained optimistic outlooks as they aged. As one such piece of research concluded, “The habits and surroundings of centenarians vary from country to country, but the one specific thing that they have in common is their positivity. When difficult situations arise, whether it’s the death of a loved one or illness, they’re resilient, they adapt, and they stay optimistic. This optimism is evident in centenarian studies around the world.”
Rebecca Weber is the Chief Executive Officer for the Association of Mature American Citizens. The 2 million member AMAC is a senior advocacy organization that takes its marching orders from its members. They act and speak on their behalf, protecting their interests and offering a practical insight on how to best solve the problems they face today. Opinions expressed are those of the author.