If you sift through the noise and fury that dominates our daily news cycles, you may have noticed a recently published study that suggests optimists live longer than pessimists. A paper published in last month’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America examined data from long-term studies of data from thousands of individuals. The researchers found that, independent of other factors that influence lifespan, people who had the most optimistic attitudes lived 11-15% longer, and were far more likely to live past 85, than people who had the least optimistic attitudes.
Reading this, the pessimist might say something like, “So now you’re telling me I’m going to die young? Yet another thing to feel gloomy about!” But there’s good news here as well: even though people tend to be more temperamentally optimistic or pessimistic, there are several ways to improve your outlook and boost psychological and physical health.
Changing a person’s interpretation of events, and the events the person focuses on, is often a crucial part of psychotherapy. Looking at the facts of a situation realistically while becoming more aware of misguided focus and misinterpretation can counteract the negative interpretations many people, particularly those who struggle with anxiety or depression, often have. Even without professional guidance, however, there are practices everyone can engage in to increase emotional optimism, emotional well-being, and purpose.
Just as regular practice and exercise can help increase strength, flexibility, and overall physical health, there are regular practices and exercises that can have a parallel effect on our emotional health. One such practice is called “Three Good Things,” and can be done in as little as 10 minutes a day. This exercise may be particularly helpful in increasing optimism, since it trains us to look directly at and remember everyday goodness and beauty, rather than the things that go wrong.
The practice is simple: every day for at least one week, write down three things that went well, and an explanation for why. These can be smaller (e.g., “My husband unloaded the dishwasher before I got home from work”) or bigger (e.g., “My daughter told me she got the part she wanted in the school play”). As you write, give the event a title, write down exactly what happened in as much detail as possible, include how this made you feel at the time and also now as you write about it, and explain what you think caused the event. Just like any kind of practice, regularly taking the time to focus on good events and positive feelings can have long-lasting effects. Over the first day or two it may be difficult to shift focus away from the negative, but it does get easier, and the positive impact on psychological health and physical health is significant.
The Greater Good Science Center of UC Berkeley provides extensive resources to learn about increasing optimism, happiness, connection, purpose, and health. The Three Good Things practice is just one of dozens of happiness practices that can be found on their website: ghttps://ggia.berkeley.edu/g. Here’s to living longer with optimism!
Marcia Mofson, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist