The Importance of a Positive Attitude to Staying Sharp

By American Geriatrics Society (AGS), Health in Aging Foundation

Aging can bring major life changes. Staying positive and happy isn’t always easy in your older years, when you may lose people near and dear to you, have unexpected health issues, have children move away, retire from a job that meant the world to you, or need to move out of the family home.

Yet, contrary to popular opinion, getting older doesn’t mean you become more negative. Aging and negativity don’t go hand in hand. One large study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicated that as people age, they become happier rather than sadder and are able to regulate emotions more effectively than younger or middle-aged adults. Even if you’re not Mary Sunshine by nature, you can learn to develop a positive overall outlook.

Why bother? Although being optimistic isn’t a surefire ticket to living into your 100s, several studies have shown that pessimism can increase your risk of dying at a younger age. Consider the following studies:

  • A study done in the Netherlands involving nearly 1,000 participants age 65 to 85 showed that people who described themselves as being highly optimistic had a 55 percent lower risk of dying than pessimists did during the ten-year study period. The risks of dying from heart disease were 23 percent lower for optimists during the same period.
  • The Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement began in the 1970s with over 1,100 people and concluded more than 20 years later with over 600 people over age 50. The study showed that people with a healthy attitude toward aging lived more than seven years longer than those with a negative attitude.
  • The Mayo Clinic reported that when psychological tests given to over 800 people were reviewed, pessimistic people were 19 percent more likely to have died in any given year than optimists.

Like everything else, you can carry optimism too far so it ends up being more harmful than beneficial. Being too optimistic can lead to a carefree attitude that results in unfortunate, but often avoidable, problems resulting from taking risks rather than precautions. Excessive optimism can also lead to an overly trusting attitude, which can allow others to take advantage of you. You’ve probably heard stories of overly trusting seniors who have been conned out of large sums of money by individuals or organizations. Again, balance is the key, and you have to have the right amount of positive thinking but maintain common sense when it comes to your health, money, and other important life issues.

The bottom line? Being optimistic can help you live longer — but don’t leave common sense at the door. In some situations, skepticism or a touch of pessimism is the best approach.