Being positive and optimistic offers many advantages throughout life. Such perspectives invite a “can-do” attitude, and they also overcome challenges throughout our day. But in addition to these benefits, having an optimistic view may also help us lead healthier lives. In fact, research is now suggesting that optimism and aging are linked, with the former increasing good health and longevity. Thus, striving to maintain a positive outlook in old age is something each of us should consider. If we want to be our healthiest, striving to see the brighter side is something that looks to be important.
Of course, keeping a positive outlook in old age can be difficult for some. Health problems, financial stress, and social isolation can make it hard to see a silver lining. However, recent scientific studies suggest that maintaining a negative point of view can cause accelerated aging. Some even suggest the impact of a pessimistic perspective affects health and wellness at a cellular level. With that in mind, actively pursuing positive emotions is something to consider. If optimism and aging well are indeed connected, then investing efforts toward a positive attitude is something to be valued.
The Impact of Negativity on Aging
Over the course of time, it’s been difficult to explain just how negativity affects aging. But over the few years, some insights are being revealed. Some studies suggest that pessimism and negative emotions result in higher levels of experienced stress. Because stress causes increased levels of inflammation in the body, a negativity-stress connection may account for age acceleration. It’s been recognized that pessimism and negativity increase the risk for dementia as well. And because inflammatory changes are often seen in dementia, this further supports a negativity-stress hypothesis. Assuming this to be true, then opposite effects of optimism and aging might be expected. This is why many have long encouraged a positive outlook in old age to enhance health and wellness.
Increased levels of inflammation may not be the only connection between negativity and aging. Other research in Taiwan has shown that certain cell structures are affected by pessimism and negative emotions. Specifically, in patients with depression, telomere length is notably less than in individuals without depression. Telomeres are structures in cells that protect genetic material and help cells divide. With each cell division, they become shorter until they eventually can no longer function. Thus, since depression shortens their length, it’s safe to assume cell death occurs earlier in these individuals. Therefore, the absence of a positive outlook in old age could lead to premature cell death in this manner as well.
The Promise of Optimism and Aging
If negativity and pessimism lead to premature cell death, then optimism and aging effects should be the opposite. Interestingly, this is exactly what recent research has demonstrated. In a recent study involving 233 older men, each were assessed for optimism and pessimism. Over a total of eight years, these individuals were assessed on three different occasions. These assessments took place over eight days and evaluated positive and negative moods as well as stress levels. At the conclusion, the researchers found those with higher levels of optimism had greater emotional wellbeing and fewer stressful experiences. In essence, a positive outlook in old age improved their mental and emotional wellness.
While these researchers did not assess longevity in these men, they suggested that fewer stress experiences might slow aging. They postulated that optimism and aging protections could coexist because less stress likely meant less cellular inflammation. It was interesting that those who were optimistic reacted to stress in a similar way as those who were pessimistic. But the optimism group seemed to be exposed to fewer stressful scenarios because they had a less negative outlook. The researchers thus suggested that optimism limited exposure to stress without otherwise buffering the stress response. Thus, encouraging a positive outlook in old age might reduce the number of stressful experiences individuals might have.
Targeting a Positivity Ratio
Understanding that optimism and aging are connected, many health and wellness experts are encouraging a positive perspective. Given that health can be a concern in one’s later years, a positive outlook in old age might reduce the risk for illness. One such expert, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, has been promoting this approach since 2009. As a psychologist, she has invested much of her time in examining the effects of positivity on health. Based on her research, she suggests that a positivity ratio of 3-to-1 represents a tipping point for better health. In other words, having roughly three positive emotions for every negative one offers better aging and quality of life.
In describing the rationale behind her positivity ratio, Fredrickson notes differences between positive and negative emotional effects. Feelings like love, joy, and optimism are expansive emotions. These lead to greater creativity, resilience, and social bonding. In contrast, negative emotions consist of those like anger, frustration, fear and anxiety. These result in an emotional constriction, which hinders emotional, mental and social wellness. In this regard, Fredrickson links optimism and aging from a more psychological perspective rather than a biological one. But her perspective coincides with cellular studies that encourage the pursuit of a more positive outlook.
Embracing a Positive Outlook in Old Age
Based on the latest findings, it would appear that a positive outlook in old age has its advantages. But how can we pursue greater optimism and a higher positivity ratio. Fortunately, there are a number of things that promote greater optimism. The first thing is to focus on positive things in your life and be grateful for them. By constantly recognizing the good instead of the bad, we naturally become more positive. And by showing gratitude, we invite positive emotions into our lives on a regular basis. These are important steps for generating optimism and aging well as we grow older.
Other important activities also include positive self-talk when we strive for greater optimism. This leads to greater self-esteem and self-confidence, which also makes it easier to have a positive outlook in old age. Similarly, reflecting on those things in life we have done well and our achievements are other constructive activities. Through these efforts, you’ll soon find that your attitude has shifted in a more favorable direction. And the health you’ll enjoy from adopting greater optimism will soon be evident.
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