When you think about the future, do you expect good or bad things to happen?

If you weigh in on the “good” side, you’re an optimist. And that has positive implications for your health in later life.

Multiple studies show a strong association between higher levels of optimism and a reduced risk of conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and cognitive impairment. Several studies have also linked optimism with greater longevity.

One of the latest, published this year, comes from researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in collaboration with colleagues at other universities. It found that older women who scored highest on measures of optimism lived 4.4 years longer, on average, than those with the lowest scores. Results held true across races and ethnicities.

Why would optimism make such a difference? Experts advance various explanations: People who are optimistic cope better with the challenges of daily life and are less likely to experience stress than people with less positive attitudes. They’re more likely to eat well and exercise, and they often have stronger networks of family and friends who can provide assistance.

Also, people who are optimistic tend to engage more effectively in problem-solving strategies and to be better at regulating their emotions.

Of course, a feedback loop is at play here: People may be more likely to experience optimism if they enjoy good health and a good quality of life. But optimism isn’t confined to those who are doing well. Studies suggest that it is a genetically heritable trait and that it can be cultivated through concerted interventions.

Ron Fegley, 82, tends a small orchard where he grows peaches, cherries, and pears. “We don’t know what’s going to happen; no one does,” he told me. “But we enjoy our life currently, and we’re just going to go on enjoying it as much as we can.” 

“I’m positive about the future because I think in the long run things keep getting better,” said Fegley, a retired physicist who lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills with his wife.

“Science is a very important part of my life, and science is always on the upwards path,” he continued. “People may have the wrong ideas for a while, but eventually new experiments and data come along and correct things.”

When Katharine Esty, 88, fell into a funk after turning 80, she looked for a guide to what to expect in the decade ahead. One didn’t exist, so she wrote “Eightysomethings: A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness.”

For the project, Esty, a social psychologist and psychotherapist, interviewed 128 people in their 80s. “The more people I talked with, the happier I became,” she told me. “People were doing interesting things, leading interesting lives, even though they were coping with a lot of losses.

“Not only was I learning stuff, having this purpose and focus brought me a tremendous amount of joy. My vision of what was possible in old age was greatly expanded.”

Part of what Esty learned is the importance of “letting go of our inner vision of what our life should be and being open to what’s really happening.”

For example, after stomach surgery last year, Esty needed physical therapy and had to use a walker. “I had always prided myself on being a very active person, and I had to accept my vulnerability,” she said. Similarly, although her 87-year-old boyfriend thought he’d spend his retirement fishing in Maine, he can’t walk well now, and that’s not possible.

“I have come to think that you choose your attitude, and optimism is an attitude,” said Esty, who lives in a retirement community. “Now that I’m 88, my task is to live in the present and believe that things will be better, maybe not in my lifetime but decades from now. Life will prevail, the world will go on — it’s a sort of trust, I think.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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