Generally speaking, do you see the glass as half-full or half-empty? We all have moments of optimism or pessimism over the course of our lives, but could a more positive mindset help you live a longer, happier, healthier life? New research suggests that seeing the silver lining could actually boost overall mental and physical wellness and possibly even extend your golden years.

Life satisfaction despite life’s challenges

One study recently published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology looked at the connection between disposition and life satisfaction among middle-age and older adults with various activity limitations.

The researchers examined data from the 2008–2018 Health and Retirement Study conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Specifically, the team looked at adults who had trouble with activities of daily living (ADLs) — such as bathing, dressing, or eating — and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs) — like shopping, paying bills, and housework.

Analyzing the data, the research team found that when “activity limitations increased, life satisfaction statistically, significantly decreased.” Importantly, however, among study participants with activity limitation, they discovered that an increase in levels of optimism also was tied to an increase in life satisfaction. In other words, even among people experiencing challenges with day-to-day tasks, those who have a sunnier outlook were also more satisfied with their lives.

What’s more, the researchers postulated that by increasing levels of optimism, people might actually be able to reduce the negative ramifications ADL/IADL challenges can have on a person’s life satisfaction. The study authors noted, “Strategies to improve optimism and other positive perceptions may have promise to increase life satisfaction and protect middle-aged and older adults from the negative effects of functional limitations.”

>> Related: Positive Aging: Changing Your Mindset About Growing Older

Other health benefits linked to optimism

Beyond coping with difficulties created by age-related challenges around ADLs and IADLs, having an optimistic nature has been shown to have a wide range of other benefits. According to the Mayo Clinic, a variety of research studies have shown that a positive outlook may:

  • Increase your lifespan
  • Lower rates of depression
  • Lower levels of distress and pain
  • Offer greater immunity to illnesses
  • Boost psychological and physical wellbeing
  • Lead to better cardiovascular health and lower the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and stroke
  • Reduce the risk of death from cancer, respiratory conditions, infections
  • Provide better coping skills during hardships and times of stress

Researchers and doctors are not sure why people who are more optimistic experience these health benefits. Some have posited that having a positive outlook on life helps you cope more effectively during stressful times, which in turn can reduce the negative health consequences of stress. Others have surmised that people who are optimistic tend to have healthier lifestyles on the whole — logging more physical activity, eating a healthier diet, and not smoking or drinking excessively.

>> Related: Kindness Matters: How Volunteering Can Benefit Seniors’ Health

Can optimism be taught?

Things are definitely looking up for those more optimistic folks among us! But what if a sunny outlook doesn’t come naturally to you? Are you just to accept being left out in the rain?

It turns out, that to some degree, optimism is a habit we choose, and it can be a learned. One way to boost our positive thought patterns is with “optimism training” or “optimism therapy,” which uses guided exercises to encourage people to focus on life’s positive experiences.

If you want to start down the path to a more optimistic mindset, here are some other simple tips from experts at the University of Rochester Medical Center:

  • Think positive thoughts about yourself and others.
  • Consider limiting your online use of social media sites if you tend to compare yourself with others who post on those sites.
  • Stop comparing yourself with others in a competitive way. Each person has unique and special talents that are to be valued.
  • Try to find the good in every situation, even at difficult moments.
  • When facing a challenge, focus on achieving a positive outcome, rather than expecting defeat.
  • Explore your own beliefs about the meaning and purpose of life, whether they are philosophical or religious.
  • Strive to improve your physical health through exercise, a healthy diet, and good sleeping habits and hygiene.
  • Challenge your mind every day by learning something new, including learning about yourself and your family history.

>> Related: Surprising Findings Around CCRC Residents’ Pandemic Stress, Resilience

The sunny side of life

I’m reminded of the popular Carter Family song, Sunny Side of Life. The refrain wisely advises:

Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life.
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way,
If we’ll keep on the sunny side of life.

While it can be tough to fight our nature, there’s good news when it comes to optimism: It is, at least in part, a learned behavior, which means you can change it!

The research being done on the health and wellness benefits of a positive mindset, especially among seniors, could have far-reaching implications for the senior living industry. While additional studies need to be done to examine how optimism, or optimism training, could help boost seniors’ life satisfaction, there is really no downside to nurturing a positive outlook among people of all ages!


Image credit: Anna Shvets, Pexels

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