Alice Herz-Sommer led a remarkable and, at times, tragic life. Born to a Jewish family in Prague before the second world war, she was a gifted musician and mixed with talents like Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka. Following the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, however, she was interned in a concentration camp (where, incredibly, she was able to play in over 150 musical concerts). She survived, along with her son, but her husband and other family members did not. After the war she became a renowned concert pianist and died in 2014 at the age of 110.
The key to her long life, she said, was optimism. “I have lived through many wars and have lost everything many times Yet, life is beautiful, and I have so much to learn and enjoy. I have no space nor time for pessimism and hate.”
On the face of it, Alice’s extraordinary life has little in common with that of Cloe Wintle, other than that she is also a centenarian. Born with sight problems, Cloe has lived in the south west of England all her life and had a long marriage to her late husband, Albert, who ran a shoe shop. Yet Cloe share’s the belief that a positive outlook on life is key to her longevity.
“I never thought I would reach this age but I have. I have had good friends and family around me who have helped through the difficult times but I have lived well. There have been bad times but what’s the good of moping around. You just have to get on with life and fight through the difficulties.”
Similarly William Delgesso, 100 in 2014. Born in Atlantic City, he worked for the New Jersey Bell telephone company for 32 years and was married to his wife Mary for 74. He turned 100 in 2014 and has had a lifelong love of dancing. His local newspaper wrote that if positive attitude alone could keep someone alive, Delgesso would live to be 200. “I feel great,” he told the paper. “Any better I couldn’t stand it. I just don’t feel old. I eat what I want. I drink what I want. Activities, I go to them. I even do some dancing at the senior center.”
Whether we call it optimism or positive attitude (or a range of other terms that psychologists link together, as we’ll see below), there is a widespread belief that many centenarians possess it. In fact one poll of centenarians found that 60 percent described themselves as ‘positive people’.
But are positive people more likely to get to 100? Or are they simply more positive because they have done?
Plausibility rating: 8 out of 10. Yes, shout it out loud – being positive can improve your physical health and may help you live longer.
This major study in 2008 looked at results from 35 research projects and concluded that people with ‘positive psychological well-being’ do indeed have better health. It defined positive psychological mood very widely to include emotional well-being, positive mood, joy, happiness, vigor and energy and also dispositions such as life satisfaction, hopefulness, sense of humor and – yes – optimism.
Another big study – this one looking just at optimism – considered 83 studies (with just a hint of ‘my meta-analysis is bigger than your meta-analysis’) and concluded that being optimistic is good for you across pretty much all health conditions.
Both studies also concluded that even people who were already unwell gained from being positive and optimistic. That lends weight to the idea that our centenarians were positive people to begin with, not just because they’d already made it to 100.
And this study makes the link to longer life. It looked at four characteristics of ‘positive attitude to life’ – optimism, easygoing, laughter, and introversion/outgoing- and concluded that these personality traits might well ‘play an important role in achieving positive health outcomes and exceptional longevity’.
So we’re leaning towards benefits of thinking that the glass is half full rather than half empty. But if you’re naturally more Eeyore than Tigger, don’t despair (or do, I suppose, if that’s what you prefer). If we look hard enough we can find studies suggesting that looking on the bright side may not always be the best approach.
For example, this study in Germany found that older people who were overly optimistic about their futures were more likely to experience ill health and die earlier than those who were accurate or overly pessimistic in their assessments.
This may be an example of what has been called the ‘Pangloss Paradox‘ after Voltaire’s fictional hero who believed naively that ‘all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. Being positive is one thing, it suggests, but being ridiculously positive can also get you into trouble psychologically if things don’t work out as you’d expected.
Still, overall it’s pretty clear that being positive really can help you live to 100. Time for a new year’s resolution?
Happy New Year.
photo credit: Positive energy for your soul/Positive Energie for deine Seele via photopin (license)