People who enjoy life don’t just live better ― they may also live longer, new research suggests.
While it’s been well-established that happiness and positive thinking are good for your health, the question of whether a good attitude could actually help you live longer has been more difficult to determine ― largely because it’s been challenging to measure people’s attitudes and outlooks over the course of many years.
However, researchers who followed thousands of older men and women from 2002 until 2013 found convincing evidence that your outlook on life really does have an impact on longevity.
“We set out to discover whether sustained well-being was important,” said Dr. Andrew Steptoe, a psychologist at University College London and lead author of the study published this week in the British Medical Journal. “Previous studies relating positive feelings with health have been done, but have been based on a single measure of well-being. People’s assessments of their well-being go up and down, so measures taken on a single occasion may be affected by their current situation.”
Psychologists at the university looked beyond happiness to also include measures of life satisfaction and enjoyment. The researchers surveyed nearly 10,000 British adults over the age of 50, asking questions about their well-being and enjoyment of life. During three separate testing sessions that took place every two years, they asked participants whether and how often they agreed with statements such as:
“I enjoy the things that I do”
“I enjoy being in the company of others”
“On balance, I look back on my life with a sense of happiness”
“I feel full of energy these days”
Follow-ups conducted seven years after the participants’ final responses revealed enjoying life was significantly correlated with reduced mortality. Participants who reported enjoyment of life at all three intervals were 24 percent less likely to have died than people who reported no life enjoyment, while those who reported enjoying their lives during two sessions were 17 percent less likely to have died.
In other words, the people who kept a positive outlook for the longest amount of time were the most likely to live longer.
“The fact that we found stronger associations with mortality with multiple reports of high well-being indicates that not only the strength, but also the duration of positive feelings is important,” Steptoe told The Huffington Post.
Those most likely to have high life enjoyment tended to be female, married or co-habitating, well-educated, wealthier and currently employed.
While scientists still can’t say for sure whether life enjoyment directly leads to increased longevity, Steptoe posited that the two issues could be connected for a few reasons.
“Perhaps people who enjoy life have healthier lifestyles, and this is responsible,” Steptoe said. “The second possibility is that there are direct biological links, with changes in stress-related hormonal and immune responses that are responsible.”
Scientists are increasingly concerning themselves with these sorts of questions as a growing body of research has shown that physical and psychological health are closely intertwined, and that positive emotions may play a role in preventing and managing disease. Another recent study, conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health, found that women who are more optimistic have a significantly reduced risk of early death.
“Our finding … lends support to the hypothesis that how much positive feeling you have is directly relevant to your future health,” Steptoe said. “We need to attend more to the positive side of life.”