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Optimistic people experience less stress and healthier old age

Optimistic people feel more positive and confident about the future, or about the successful outcome of some event; but does this make a difference to emotional well-being in the long run? 

A new study published recently in the Journals of Gerontology, Series B investigated the association between optimism and healthy aging in a cohort of 233 older men. The men had all originally completed an optimism questionnaire and then, 14 years later, they participated in this current study. They were asked to report on the daily stressors in their lives, along with their positive and negative moods on eight consecutive evenings, up to three times over an eight-year period. 

“This study tests one possible explanation, assessing if more optimistic people handle daily stress more constructively and therefore enjoy better emotional well-being,” said corresponding author Dr. Lewina Lee, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.

It is well known that stress is not good for overall health and the researchers hyphothesized that having an optimistic outlook may moderate the levels of stress that older men experience in their daily lives, thereby reducing the negative effects of stress on their health as they age. They found that, when it comes to dealing with day-to-day stressors, such as household chores or arguments with others, being more optimistic did not make a difference to the way in which older men reacted to or recovered from these stressors. 

However, more optimistic men did report experiencing fewer negative moods and also more positive moods (beyond simply not feeling negative). They also experienced fewer stressors in their lives, which was unrelated to their increased number of positive moods, but did explain their decreased numbers of negative moods.  These findings indicate that optimism may promote emotional well-being by limiting how often older men experience stressful situations or by changing the way they interpret situations as stressful or not.

While studies have increasingly supported the idea of optimism as a resource that may promote good health and longevity, very little is known about the possible underlying mechanisms. “Stress, on the other hand, is known to have a negative impact on our health. By looking at whether optimistic people handle day-to-day stressors differently, our findings add to knowledge about how optimism may promote good health as people age,” said Dr. Lee.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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