Women Who Cop This Attitude Live Longer!

American philosopher and psychologist William James said, “Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.”
It’s a quote that makes sense to most American women. We’re a positive nation on the whole, and believe in having hope for the future. We know that if we can approach each day with an optimistic attitude, things are likely to go better for us than they would if we set out each morning with frowns on our faces.

A recent study suggests that optimism may do a lot more for women than give them hope or happiness, however. Researchers at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health observed data from 70,000 women, and found that those who were more optimistic actually had a better chance of living longer lives!
What does this mean for us? After all, we can’t always put smiles on our faces. There are days when things just aren’t good, and no amount of attempts to “be positive” will make them better. What actions do we really need to take in our lives to enjoy the benefits of this overall healthy attitude?

Study Shows Optimistic Women Live Longer
For the study, researchers used data from the Nurses’ Health Study, which included 70,021 women. They measured levels of optimism in 2004, and then assessed mortality rates between 2006 and 2012. They wanted to see how women’s attitudes affected their health outcomes, particularly with cardiovascular disease.
Overall, they found that a higher degree of optimism was associated with a lower mortality risk. After adjusting for other factors like sociodemographic characteristics and health behaviors, they found that women with the highest levels of optimism had about a 30 percent lower risk of dying compared to women with the lowest levels of optimism.
More specifically, the most optimistic women had a:
  • 16 percent lower risk of dying from cancer,
  • 38 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease,
  • 39 percent lower risk of dying from stroke,
  • 38 percent lower risk of dying from respiratory disease,
  • and a 52 percent lower risk of dying from infection.
Why would this be? Researchers theorized that in general, women who are optimistic are less likely to be stressed out. They focus on their more positive emotions, and on how they can make each situation better, retaining a sense of control. Feeling out of control is directly related to higher stress levels, which can then increase heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of the stress hormone “cortisol” in the blood—all factors that can, over time, increase risk of cardiovascular disease.
“Optimistic people,” said Dr. Richa Sood, an internist at the Mayo Clinic, “because they feel that they can make some change, have this philosophy approach that ‘I can do something rather than avoidance.’ Also, in terms of approach, they are likely to do right things. They are likely to ask for help, from medical facilities, from their friends, or tap into internal resources to get their positive emotions going.”

Optimistic Women are Self-Compassionate
In addition to feeling like they can change a situation, and being able to ask for help, optimistic women, the researchers found, tend to be more compassionate with themselves than pessimistic women.
If you’re not sure whether or not you have the right optimistic attitude, ask yourself this: “When I make a mistake, do I forgive myself, or spend days criticizing and berating myself?”

If you’re the type to forgive and treat yourself kindly, you’re likely to fit the researchers’ definition of optimistic. Unfortunately, many women have trouble with this one. We are more likely to doubt ourselves, and to be harder on ourselves than we would be on others. One good takeaway from this study is that we must be more compassionate with ourselves for the sake of our health and longevity.
“Women have a lot of self-doubt,” said Dr. Sood. “We probably peg our self-worth on things least well done rather than on what we do well. So that doesn’t give us the good, positive energy. But if we could focus on the ‘I tried my best, pat on the back, I will do better next time,’ that’s optimism, and we are caring for ourselves.”
This part of the study surprised me, personally. When I think of being optimistic, I think of trying to see the silver lining in each situation, and of having hope and positive feelings about the future. I never equated self-compassion with optimism, but this study suggests that we should.
Kristen Neff, psychology professor at the University of Texas and author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, told The Atlantic that overall, women tend to be less self-compassionate than men, because they are often more focused on self-sacrifice and on meeting the needs of others.
“Women are told they should not take care of themselves,” she says, “that they should always be outwardly focused.” But this can negatively affect our physical health, say nothing of our emotional health. “There’s some work on physical health,” Neff says, “showing that self-compassion is linked to better immune function….
Self-compassionate people are healthier, they take better care of themselves, they are more likely to exercise and eat well, more likely to go to the doctor. Self-compassion is caring about yourself and not wanting yourself to suffer.”

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