If you’re in a relationship, your partner’s outlook can have a significant impact on how long and how well you live, according to a study by researchers at Michigan State University.
Optimism is typically defined as a general expectation that good things will happen, and being hopeful or confident about the future. Looking on the bright side is not only good for our own health and cognition, it’s good for our partners as well, says the study’s co-author, Dr. William Chopik.
The Journal of Personality study involved up to 8 years of data on more than 4,400 heterosexual couples and concluded “a potential link between being married to an optimistic person and preventing the onset of cognitive decline.”
“There’s a sense where optimists lead by example, and their partners follow their lead,” says Chopik. “We found that when you look at the risk factors for what predicts things like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, a lot of them are things like living a healthy lifestyle. Maintaining a healthy weight and physical activity are large predictors,” he says. “People who are married to optimists tend to score better on all of those metrics.” Optimistic people tend to eat healthier diets, maintain a healthier weight, be more physically active, earn more and get promoted more often. The findings are suggestive, not definitive, of course, and they don’t account for every situation or all people.
In another study, women who rate themselves as having the highest levels of optimism live 15% longer than the least optimistic women and have a 50% greater chance of reaching age 85. The most optimistic men live 11% longer and are 70% more likely to reach 85. The research, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, followed 69,744 women for 10 years and 1,429 men for 30 years. Both groups were surveyed at the outset to assess their level of optimism, as well as other factors that researchers accounted for, including demographics, health conditions, depression, and diet.
“Just like how optimistic partners can inspire us to be more active and healthy, pessimistic partners can shut down our efforts and undermine our goals to be healthy,” he says. “Being married to a pessimist isn’t great for helping us cope with stress either- optimism can help us overcome stress in positive ways. Pessimism causes us to ruminate on problems in unhealthy ways and blame ourselves unnecessarily.”
What if you’re single? Chopik says it may be wise to surround yourself with others who are optimistic, too. “Optimism and other positive traits can spill over or be absorbed by the people we’re close to,” including friends and family, he says. “Preliminary results suggest that that’s the case, so it’s not just a story of romantic couples — being repeatedly exposed to environments full of optimists can be beneficial as well.”