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Research reveals that an optimistic attitude leads to better health and longer life. Pessimists can become optimists without resorting to magical thinking or fairy tales.

Although optimism and pessimism would seem to have a very basic role in determining lifespan, medical researchers have only very recently begun to look at personality traits as predictors of health and disease. In 2012, researchers at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Australia published their findings of a study of personality and mortality in 3,572 twins over the age of 50.

They found that, when other factors are taken into consideration:

  • Optimists tend to live longer than pessimists, but
  • Psychoticism, which may express itself as magical thinking, was associated with shorter lifespans.

The study also found a trend for introverts to live longer than extroverts, although the relationship was not statistically significant.

Optimism More Important than Good Genes

The Australian study found that having "good genes" actually plays a very small role in determining how long someone will live.

Only about 7% of the variation in longevity is due to genetic differences.

Attitude is far more important to determining how long and how well someone will live, at least in a relatively prosperous and socially conscious society such as Australia, and optimists live longer than people whose attitudes are primarily pessimistic.

Optimism Is Mainly in the Brain

Whether a person is an optimist or a pessimist, however, isn't just about attitude. It's largely about brain chemistry.

A brain chemical called dopamine prevents the brain from recording the feeling aspects of negative experiences. We can reason what is beneficial and detrimental in our lives, but we don't "feel" the effects of negative experiences as strongly when our brains produce more dopamine.

Dopamine is often described as the brain's reward chemical. It serves as a neurotransmitter, a chemical that helps electrical signals "jump" the gap between neurons in the brain. Whether there is more or less dopamine in a junction helps to determine the strength of a signal in the brain. The pattern of more dopamine on one location and less dopamine in another routes signals to their destinations. When dopamine is deficient, signals don't get sent to the parts of the brain that register pleasure. A lack of dopamine results in "depression," but dopamine also affects our thinking processes, not just our feelings.

Since an optimistic attitude involves failing to remember emotional pain, optimism is inherently unrealistic. That's not a bad thing, however, as long as optimism is not replaced by psychoticism, which erases factual memories and good judgment.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Mosing MA, Medland SE, McRae A, Landers JG, Wright MJ, Martin NG.Genetic influences on life span and its relationship to personality: a 16-year follow-up study of a sample of aging twins. Psychosom Med. 2012 Jan.74(1):16-22. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e3182385784. Epub 2011 Dec 7.
  • Saudino KJ, Pedersen NL, Lichtenstein P, McClearn GE, Plomin R. Can personality explain genetic influences on life events? J Pers Soc Psychol. 1997 Jan.72(1):196-206.

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