Our attitude to ageing has a measurable effect on our longevity and brain performance. In a 2002 research paper, scientist Becca Levy recorded that people with more positive perceptions of ageing lived an average of seven-and-a-half years longer than people who felt negatively about ageing. This was after gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness and overall health were taken into account. In fact, the effect of a positive attitude on survival was greater than the effect of a healthy lifestyle! Having low blood pressure, normal cholesterol levels and never smoking each added around four extra years to life – only half of what having a life-affirming optimistic outlook gives.
What’s more, the effects of encouraging statements were found to be immediate as well as long term. Elderly people exposed to positive and constructive messages about ageing immediately before a series of memory tests, performed better than individuals told or shown something negative in relation to ageing. Even just having sanguine words flashed in front of them momentarily, without the individual being consciously aware of it, led to higher scores.
In another landmark study, a team of psychology researchers from the University of Kentucky discovered that optimism in general was associated with a longer lifespan. The researchers studied autobiographies penned by a congregation of 180 Catholic nuns on 22 September 1930. On this day, the mother superior had asked all the sisters in her order, whose average age was 22, to write a brief autobiography. More than 70 years later, the letters were found and carefully scrutinised for words suggesting positive and negative emotions. Positive words included happiness, joy, love, hope, gratitude and contentment; negative words were sadness, fear, confusion, disappointment and shame. The research found that nuns who expressed more positive emotions in their autobiographies lived significantly longer –in some instances by 10 years –than those expressing fewer positive emotions. For every 1 per cent increase in the number of sentences with positive emotion, the researchers found 1.4 per cent decrease in the women’s mortality rate. Of the nuns who wrote the most positive sentences, less than a quarter (24 per cent) had died. Of those who wrote the least number of positive sentences, more than half (54 per cent) had died. The average age at death for the least positive nuns was 86 years and for the happiest it was 93.5 years. In either case, nuns are laughing all the way to heaven.