I have a friend who is the eternal pessimist. His outlook is almost always dismal. He looks at life through the lens of Murphy’s Law – anything that can go wrong will.
Pessimists like him may find this suspect, but researchers who tracked the health outcomes of thousands of adults across many years found optimists were much more likely to reach age 85. They also found that optimism is teachable.
The study, reported last month on the National Public Radio web site, finds that optimistic people are likelier than others to live to be 85 years old or more. Researchers at Boston and Harvard Universities found that outcomes were independent of factors such as “socioeconomic status, health conditions, depression, social integration, and health behaviors.”
Researchers already knew that optimistic people have less depression, heart disease and other chronic diseases. In this study, they wanted to learn whether optimism is linked to longevity. And unlike some social science studies, this one was large enough and long enough to be believable.
Optimism and Overall Health
The study included 69,744 women and 1,429 men who completed surveys to assess their level of optimism and their overall health and health habits such as diet, smoking and alcohol use. Health outcomes from women were tracked for 10 years; men’s for 30 years.
“Researchers found that the most optimistic men and women demonstrated, on average, an 11-15% longer lifespan, and had far greater odds of reaching 85 years old, compared to the least optimistic group.”
The article quotes psychologist Natalie Dattilo, who says even if it doesn’t come naturally, optimism can be taught. In her practice she works mostly with adults who struggle with depression and anxiety. Many are pessimistic and “tend to see things through a half empty glass and typically expect negative outcomes.
Beliefs and Assumptions
“We examine their thinking under a psychological microscope,” Dattilo says …”If we can look at that together, we can begin to uncover systems of beliefs and assumptions people are making about themselves in their lives and we can begin to change those.”
What does all this have to do with skeptical faith and the search for God? It’s that Judeo-Christianity makes it hard to be a pessimist because people of faith know that, ultimately, life has meaning and a loving God is in charge. This is not to say that faith is a “treatment” for pessimism; just that a sincere faith should, and does, make people more optimistic and less anxious.
Consider the confidence and trust expressed in what is, perhaps, the best-known psalm, (23 or 22 in Catholic Bibles). It begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
“…If I should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear. You are there with your rod and your staff; with these you give me comfort. …Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life.”
Or consider Jesus’ advice in Mathew’s gospel.
Life More Than Food
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit (the length of your forearm) to his span of life?”
The kind of peace suggested in these passages isn’t based on a naïve lack of realism but upon faith in a God who is intimately connected to our lives and who wants, and will bring about, what’s best for us.
The friend mentioned at the beginning of this blog, by the way, is a Christian. Somehow, confidence in a loving Father has gotten past him. If it hadn’t, he may be less anxious, and may even live longer!