By Judith Graham
Tuesday, December 13, 2022 (Kaiser News) — When you think about the future, do you expect good or bad things to happen?
If you weigh on the “good” side, you are an optimist. And that has a positive effect on your health later in life.
Several 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 to longer lifespans.
One of the most recent, published this year, comes from researchers at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health in collaboration with colleagues at other universities. It found that older women with the highest optimism scores lived, on average, 4.4 years longer than those with the lowest scores. The results applied across races and ethnic groups.
Why should optimism make such a difference?
Experts offer various explanations: Optimistic people cope better with the challenges of daily life and are less stressed than people with less positive attitudes. They are more likely to eat well and exercise, and they often have stronger networks of family and friends who can help them.
Also, optimistic people tend to engage in problem-solving strategies more effectively and regulate their emotions better.
Of course, there is a feedback loop at play here: people may be more likely to be optimistic when they enjoy good health and a good quality of life. But optimism is not limited to those who are doing well. Studies suggest that it is a genetically inheritable trait and that it can be cultivated through concerted interventions.
What does optimism look like in practice? To find answers, I spoke to several older adults who identify as optimists but do not take this trait for granted. Instead, it’s a choice they make every day.
Patricia Reeves, 73, Oklahoma City. “I’ve had a pretty good life, but like everyone, I’ve had my share of trauma,” said Reeves, a widow of seven who lives alone. “I think it’s my faith and optimism that’s pulled me through.”
A longtime teacher and principal, Reeves retired to care for her parents and second husband, a Baptist minister, before they died. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she said, “I developed my spirituality.”
When I asked what optimism meant to her, Reeves said, “You can see the good in any situation, or you can see the negative. When something isn’t going the way I want it, I prefer to ask myself, “What am I learning from this?” What role did I play and am I repeating behavioral patterns? How can I change?’”
When it comes to the challenges that come with aging—the loss of friends and family, health issues—Reeves spoke of optimism as a “can-do” attitude that keeps her going. “You don’t spend your time focusing on your health or thinking about your pain. You take it in as fact and then let it go,” she said. “Or if you have a problem you can solve, figure out how to solve it and move on to tomorrow.”
“There’s always something to be thankful for and that’s what you focus on.”
Grace Harvey, 100, LaGrange, Georgia. “I seek the best that can happen under any circumstances,” said Harvey, a retired teacher and devoted Baptist. “You can handle any situation with God’s help.”
Her parents, a farmer and teacher in Georgia, barely earned enough to make ends meet. “Although you would classify us as poor, I didn’t consider myself poor,” she said. “I just felt blessed to have parents who do their best.”
Today, Harvey lives in an RV and teaches Sunday school. She never married or had children, but she was surrounded by loving family and alumni at her centenary celebration in October.
“Having no family of my own allowed me to touch the lives of many others,” she said. “I’m thankful that God let me live this long: I still want to be there to help someone.”
Ron Fegley, 82, Placer County, California. “I’m positive about the future because I think things will only get better in the long run,” said Fegley, a retired physicist who lives with his wife in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
“Science is a very important part of my life, and science is always on the way up,” he continued. “People may have misconceptions for a while, but eventually new experiments and data come along and correct things.”
Fegley maintains a small orchard where he grows peaches, cherries and pears. “We don’t know what’s going to happen; Nobody does that,” he told me. “But we’re enjoying our lives right now, and we’re just going to keep enjoying it as best we can.”
Anita Lerek, over 65, Toronto. “I was a very restless younger person,” said Lerek, who declined to give her exact age. “Part of it had to do with the fact that my parents were Holocaust survivors and joy wasn’t a big part of their menu. They struggled a lot and I was filled with resentment.”
When I asked her about optimism, Lerek described exploring Buddhism and learning to take responsibility for her thoughts and actions. “Mine is cultivated optimism,” she told me. “I go to my books – Buddhist teachings, the Talmud – they have taught me a lot. You face all your demons and cultivate a garden of wisdom, projects and emotional connections.”
At this point in life, “I’m grateful for every moment, every experience, because I know it can end at any moment,” said Lerek, a lawyer and entrepreneur who writes poetry and still works part-time. “It boils down to, ‘Is the glass half empty or half full?’ I choose abundance.”
Katharine Esty, 88, Concord, Massachusetts. As Esty fell into a spark after her 80th birthday, she was looking for some guidance on what to expect in the decade to come. There wasn’t one, 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 spoke to, the happier I got,” she told me. “People have done interesting things, lived interesting lives, despite dealing with a lot of losses.
“Not only did I learn stuff, but having that purpose and focus gave me tremendous joy. My view of what is possible in old age has expanded enormously.”
Part of what Esty has learned is the importance of “letting go of our inner vision of how our life should be and being open to what’s really happening.”
For example, Esty needed physical therapy after stomach surgery last year and had to use a walker. “I’ve 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 would spend his retirement fishing in Maine, he can’t walk well now, and that’s not possible.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that you choose your attitude, and optimism is an attitude,” said Esty, who lives in a seniors’ community. “Now that I’m 88, my job is to live in the present and believe that things will get better, maybe not in my lifetime but decades from now. Life will prevail, the world will move on – it’s a kind of trust I guess.