Can you learn to be an optimist? The answer is yes.
We’re always talking about the mind-body connection: how our emotional and mental state can affect our physical health. Now, a new study in the journal Aging confirms the notion, reporting that having a positive attitude about aging, but also generally, can add years to your life. That is, optimistic people live longer. Of course, optimism is a state of being often linked to genetics—you’re either born an optimist or you’re not—how you’re raised, and your life circumstances. For many who’ve faced certain hardship or personal struggle, it can be difficult to retain a sunny outlook when everything seems to be going wrong. What to do in that case?
“Centenarians often share genetically inherited positive personality traits: They’re easy going, out going, competent, and laugh easily,” says Susan B. Lord, MD, who leads several Kripalu Healthy Living programs. “They also tend to manage and express their feelings more freely than the general population.” These qualities have them—and their parasympathetic nervous system—living in a more relaxed state, which in turn optimizes organ function, slows down aging, and decreases the risk of developing disease. The question is: Can those of us who did not inherit a sunny, extroverted disposition develop this orientation toward life? Can we literally learn optimism?
Yes, says Susan. “Most of us are familiar with trying to change out of fear of getting sick or out of hating how we are now,” she says. “But this rarely works because it increases stress, which exacerbates the situation rather than turning it around.” When we focus on positive states, however, we actually change the brain, creating new neural pathways or habitual patterns of emotional stability, competence, positivity, contentment, and even joy—things that are consistent with longevity and good health outcomes. “Most of us spend entirely too much time wishing things were different, both in our past and our present,” she says. “We focus on negative emotions and memories so that is what we experience and create for ourselves. But neuroscience has shown that to change, we must put our attention on what we want instead of on what we don’t want.”
Here are Susan’s tips for getting started on a path toward positivity:
Be aware of your thoughts and feelings. Where do you put your attention? Write down what you learn about your mind. Once you identify thoughts, feelings, and memories that upset you, work to resolve them. Many of us have significant traumas that seem to define us. Finding the right therapist, bodyworkers, or energy healers; journaling; and expressing ourselves creatively can help us heal. Practice saying nice things to yourself and refraining from habitual self-criticism.
Spend time every day strengthening your parasympathetic nervous system. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are examples of practices that will take you to this relaxed state. But anything that makes you laugh and feel good—a funny movie, painting, playing with kids or pets, a lavender bath—can work.
Be sure to notice and savor the good things in your life. Really taste that delicious meal; take that compliment and feel it in your body; start a gratitude practice. These feeling states will change your brain.
Be sure to connect with yourself, your body, and with loving people around you. Isolation puts us in fight-or-flight mode. Feeling connected leads to trust, another centenarian quality. Make the effort to reach out to someone every day. It matters.