Be Optimistic. You Might Live Longer!

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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.

Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us on Twitter @SquaredAwayBC. To stay current on our blog, please join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here.  


“People who have a college education are known to live longer.” The current batch of college kids don’t seem happy at the moment. Let’s see if the statistics change over the years.


Call it optimism, or whatever you will, but one’s outlook on life does have a profound and far reaching effect on every aspect of life. What you can aspire to, relationships, job opportunities, connecting with others.

A lot of our capability for optimism is nurtured at an early age. I was raised to believe that “if someone else can do it, you can do it too.” This gave me confidence to try my hand at a given task. I didn’t often excel at any one thing and may not have had the propensity for others, but often found that I could become proficient if I kept at it.

Many people who are pessimistic adopt an attitude of victimization. It’s always somebody else’s fault they don’t succeed, never their own. People are turned off by this downtrodden, dour outlook.

For all its shams and disappointments we live in a very beautiful world with so many opportunities. We may never reach the stars but should never stop trying. An optimistic nature is a blessing indeed. And no, Pollyanna did not write this, but we can all take a page from her book.

Dick Purcell

But Kim — living longer increases risk of financial DOOM. Running out of money needed for those extra years. (Unless you put your money in SPIAs.)

So people whose optimism lengthens their lives, and didn’t put their money in SPIAs, should be realistic, and be really depressed.

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