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What’s the Secret to a Long and Happy Life?

Studies show that optimists live longer than pessimists.

Do you ever wonder whether positive thinking is all in your head and has no tangible effect on your life? I’m with Norman Vincent Peale, and not just because he founded the magazine I work for: I believe in the power of positive thinking. Still, I’m also a practical person—not to mention a bit of a science geek—and I like to know that whatever I’m doing works, meaning it has some real benefit to me or to others (preferably both). Why spend time and energy on it otherwise?

Well, it turns out a positive attitude might just be the secret to a long and happy life. In The New York Times this week, health columnist Jane Brody profiled Esther Tuttle, who at 99 is as physically and mentally fit as people half her age. She only recently gave up horseback riding and still does an hour-and-a-half of exercise each day. Her memory is as sharp as ever (a good thing because she’s got the birthdays of 11 grandchildren and 21 great-grandkids to remember). “You’ve got to work [on it], be cheerful and look for something fun to do,” Esther said when asked for the secret to her longevity. “It’s a whole attitude.”

Esther’s approach, Brody points out, matches up with the results of a recent University of Pittsburgh Medical Center study that tracked 97,000 women for eight years. The participants completed questionnaires that assessed their attitude. Over the course of the study, the optimists (those who had “positive future expectations”) were less likely to die of heart disease, cancer and all other causes than the pessimists (those who had “cynical, hostile attitudes”). The positive thinkers also had a lower incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure and made healthier lifestyle choices than the negative thinkers, who had more of a tendency to smoke, be overweight and avoid exercise.

That reinforces the findings of an earlier study by a team at Yale University, who looked at 20 years of data on 660 residents, age 50-plus, of a small Ohio town. The Yale researchers discovered that those with a sunnier view of aging (people who agreed with statements like “I am as happy now as when I was younger”) lived longer than their neighbors with a negative attitude. Not just a little longer, but seven-and-a-half years longer! How’s that for proof of the power of positive thinking?

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