Being glass half full

03 September 2019

Interview with 

Olivia Remes, Cambridge University

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A paper published in the journal PNAS suggests those of us with an optimistic outlook live longer! To put this idea under the metaphorical microscope, Cambridge University mental health researcher Olivia Remes, who wasn’t involved in the study, spoke to Chris Smith...

Olivia - They looked at two cohorts, one was about 70,000 women and 1,500 men, and they followed up the women for ten years, the men for 30 years. They measured various confounders and they found that optimism leads to longer life.

Chris - How did they establish that someone was an optimist?

Olivia - They used self reported questionnaires such as: “Do you tend to see the brighter things in life?” “Do you get upset easier or not?” “Do you handle stress well?”

Chris - And the outcome measure was just whether or not someone lived longer or not?

Olivia - So they looked at mortality.

Chris - And what did they actually find, what were the raw numbers?

Olivia - They found that people who were more optimistic had, in general, a longer lifespan, but it wasn't just that, they also found that the most optimistic people were almost twice as likely to live to age 85 and beyond than the least optimistic people.

Chris - Did they look at ill health as well? Were these people, they were living for ages, but they also were living with all kinds of disability and disease or did they remain overall healthier? Did they have a longer healthspan as well as longer lifespan?

Olivia - Of course, they took various confounders into account, like chronic diseases, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. They also looked at socio-demographics, or their age, marital status, but also their health behaviors because this influences your life and survival.

Chris - Big numbers aren't they? I mean not just the size of the cohort they looked at, which argues this is probably a very robust study, but the effect, the scale of the effect, is very large in terms of if you're an optimist you live a lot longer. Why is that?

Olivia - There are various factors that come into play. One is your immunity. It actually enhances your immunity, but also you are able to cope with stresses in life better and you have a tendency to reframe situations. So, instead of seeing something as a threat, you will see it as a challenge instead.

Chris - Do you not think though, that if you live in a particularly nice environment and you're used to things going your way, you're more likely to be an optimist, as a consequence of that environment? And if you live in a pretty awful environment and things don't go your way very often, you're more likely to be pessimistic, and really this optimism/pessimism side of things is just a proxy marker for your living conditions.

Olivia - It could be, however in this study they did take into account education and income, so people who have more education and higher incomes tend to live in nicer places. But they did account for this in this study and even after they took these factors into account it was interesting that optimism was still associated with a longer life span.

Chris - And do you think that these people are representative of the public at large, because they are specific groups of people that they study? I mean the veterans and so on, so do you think it's a reflection just on who they studied, or if I were to do this in a totally different geography, a totally different group of people, totally different culture, I'm gonna get the same thing?

Olivia - I do think inherently optimism is linked to a longer life span, because it's also been linked to just better health in general, and lower mortality rates. However, this study was you know, as you said, limited to a certain population, it was mainly white people of higher socioeconomic status Americans. So it would be useful to have this study replicated in other cultures, in other countries.

Chris - And the thing I'm really dying to know; say I was a bit less optimistic than I am or if I become even more optimistic than I am, will I gain 15 years? Does it work like that?

Olivia - I mean, why not try it out and find out.

Chris - It's a once in a lifetime experience, isn’t it? What about if I'm wrong? But no, more seriously can you make yourself into an optimist and does it then play out that you will live longer? Is it a reflection on your mindset in that way, is it cause or effect?

Olivia - If you are an optimist then that is better for your health, it is better for your lifespan, and you can become an optimist. So one of the things that you can do, is to just picture positive scenarios. If you've got a work meeting coming up, or if you've got an interaction with someone, you know, like a social gathering, instead of picturing all of the negative things that are going to happen, as often happens and when you have anxiety or depression, why not picture a very positive outcome, and how you're going to do so well and succeed in that environment.

Chris - Easier to say, hard to do!

Olivia - I would tell people to just give it a try because, even if you don't feel like doing it, motivation comes after action. So give it a try, and motivation will catch up with you...

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