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The Power of a Positive Attitude
Do optimists live longer?

Change your attitude and change your life.
How's your attitude?

I've always believed having a positive attitude is an important component of good health. The ability to focus on the good things can help you work through the bad. Part of my job is helping people overcome obstacles, so I'd never really thought about the long-term effects of negative emotions. Until I lost a friend who gave up.

My friend was married for over 30 years. He built a successful business, a loving relationship and had a wide range of friends. He was the poster child of a happy person. Then his wife was diagnosed with a terminal disease.

Suddenly he was taking her to doctors appointments every week. He stood with her as surgical procedures, pills and treatments all took their toll. But through it all, my friend stayed optimistic about his wife's chances. He believed his wife deserved someone upbeat and he truly felt good things can always happen.

Three years after she was diagnosed, the love of my friend's life passed away.

You would think that's when my friend gave up, but you'd be wrong. He dealt with the grief and started to carve out a new life for himself. He worked out, traveled and kept busy with charity work. His upbeat attitude and health remained.

About four years after his wife's death, everything changed. My friend had been dealing with a chronic health condition for years. It wasn't life-threatening, but it was annoying. He had always faced it with a certain level of optimism, but one particular meeting changed that. His doctor said the best they could do was stop the progress of the disease, they couldn't give him back what he had lost.

That was the moment my friend gave up. We went to lunch the next day and he told me he was finished. He was going to stop working out, say goodbye to his family and friends, then die within a year.

To say the conversation shocked me would be an understatement. This was someone who was still in great health, not just for someone his age, but for someone twenty years younger than he was. His medical condition wasn't life-threatening in any way. Even if he wanted to die, it didn't seem possible.

Fourteen months later my friend was dead. It was as if he had willed it to happen, and there's increasing evidence that's something we can do.

Researchers in northern Sweden and western Finland looked at a group of 646 people who were 85 years and older. They carried out structured interviews and assessments during home visits and through medical records. Then they put the subjects, based on their attitudes, into low morale, moderate morale and high morale groups.

55.6% of the people with a high morale lived at least another 5 years. 39.4% of the moderate morale group lived at least 5 more years. While only 31.9% of the low morale group were still alive after 5 years.

Even after researchers adjusted for things like health, starting age and gender, mortality was highest in the group with low morale.

That pattern isn't just relevant for the very old. The Mayo Clinic conducted a 40-year follow-up study of 6,958 students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All the students had taken a psychological test that scored them from optimistic to pessimistic.

When researchers followed up on the subjects, they found that 476 deaths occurred. Perhaps not surprisingly, the optimists were outliving the pessimists.

How we take care of our bodies is a factor in how long we live, but our attitudes are proving to be nearly as important. Here are two ways to work on improving your attitude.

  1. Spend five minutes at some point during the day, looking at the positive things in your life.
  2. Make actionable plans to improve your situation.

One of my favorite examples of those steps came from a friend who lived in Alaska.

A few months after he moved to Fairbanks, he was riding with his mother into town. It was the middle of winter and the temperature was 50 degrees below zero. There was very little light because at 11:00 in the morning the sun was just barely starting to appear above the horizon. At that time of year, the sun would only last for a couple of hours before quickly setting.

My friend wasn't happy with his job and he was missing his friends at his old home. His mother could see what was going on, so she asked him to do something. "I want you to think before you answer, but tell me one good thing about living here in Alaska."

After about a minute, my friend responded. "I love that fact that if you get up at 11:00 in the morning, it's still early enough to catch the sunrise." They both began to laugh. Suddenly something that for most people was depressing, a very short day, was a bonus. That simple exercise got my friend to quit focusing on the negative.

They spent the rest of the ride into town discussing their plans to make things better. My friend joined a couple of clubs to meet new people. He sent out applications and got a better job. He started taking advantage of the environment he lived in and learned how to snowshoe, pan for gold and photograph wildlife.

You choose every day what you're going to focus on. Wallow in the problems of the past, or take steps to make things better. Improving your attitude won't just make things more bearable, it'll help you live a longer, happier life. Isn't it worth a try?

Click the links below to download abstracts of the two studies mentioned in this article.

STUDY: High morale is associated with increased survival in the very old.

STUDY: Prediction of all-cause mortality by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory Optimism-Pessimism Scale scores: study of a college sample during a 40-year followup period.

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