Why you should give thanks today…and every day
As the Classical Roman statesman Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
Being grateful leads to an optimistic, positive attitude about life. It allows you to recognize all of the things that came out well in the past…and optimism allows you to believe things will come out well in the future.
From a behavioral psychology perspective, good past results are the best predictor of good future results—but the key is recognizing and acknowledging all of the good you presently have. And there’s no better time to do that than Thanksgiving.
That’s why in the November issues of Insiders’ Cures, I share the things I’m most thankful for. These are the elements of life that give me reason to wake up with a positive attitude, and they’ve remained remarkably similar from year to year.
But this year, I’m adding a new item to the list.
Being grateful for a longer life
For my 2019 gratitude list, I’d like to thank researchers from Boston University, Harvard University, and National Center for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), who recently published a very interesting study on how a positive attitude affects longevity.1
One of the key findings is that men and women who are more optimistic can actually live 11 to 15 percent longer than their pessimistic counterparts (those who don’t believe good things will happen).
And this finding makes perfect sense to me. After all, I’m always telling you that the body and brain need to be viewed as a whole when it comes to good health—not as separate, unconnected entities that don’t influence one another.
Eastern medicine has known this for centuries. So it’s nice to see Western medicine starting to embrace it as well.
Now, let’s take a closer look at this new study, along with some tips for boosting your gratitude quotient—and thus increasing your optimism—every day.
What’s your optimism score?
Researchers analyzed two large, long-term studies: The Nurses’ Health Study, which has tracked nearly 70,000 women since 1976, and the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study, which has observed nearly 1,500 men since 1961.1
In 2004, the Nurses’ Health Study participants completed an optimism assessment. In 1986, the veterans did the same. The assessment asked how much a person agreed or disagreed with statements like the following:
- In uncertain times, I usually expect the best
- It’s easy for me to relax
- If something can go wrong for me, it will (Murphy’s Law)
- I’m always optimistic about my future
- I enjoy my friends a lot
- It’s important for me to keep busy
- I hardly ever expect things to go my way
- I don’t get upset too easily
The answers were then tallied to create a personalized “optimism score” for each study participant.
Researchers found that women with scores in the top 25 percent for optimism lived 15 percent longer, compared to those in the lowest 25 percent of scores. The most optimistic were also 50 percent more likely to live past age 85.
Plus, men with scores in the top 20 percent for optimism lived 11 percent longer than those in the lowest 20 percent. And they were 70 percent more likely to live to be 85 or older.
Amazingly, factors like chronic diseases, physical activity levels, and diet didn’t influence these percentages at all.
Why a positive outlook helps you live longer
The researchers said it’s not clear why optimism is associated with longevity, but they do have some theories.
They noted that other research shows that optimistic people may be better able to regulate their emotions and bounce back from stressful situations more quickly. This helps lower the levels of stress hormones in their bodies, which reduces their risk for many chronic diseases.
Optimistic people are also more likely to set goals and feel confident they will reach them. This can include healthy lifestyle goals like regular, moderate exercise and following a balanced diet—both of which contribute to longevity.
Plus, a 2017 study—which also used the optimism assessment above—showed that optimism may actually have a physiological component, reducing inflammation and lowering risk of death from all causes by a whopping 30 percent.2
Specifically, researchers found that people whose optimism scores were in the top 25 percent were:
- 39 percent less likely to die from a stroke
- 38 percent less likely to die from heart disease or respiratory disease
- 16 percent less likely to die from cancer
You can train yourself to be optimistic
This is encouraging news if you’re a naturally optimistic person. But what if that sort of positive outlook doesn’t come so easily for you?
Well, I have some good news.
The lead researcher on the new study said that optimism is only about 25 percent inherited (meaning it’s genetic or a result of your early childhood family environment and circumstances).
In other words, you can choose to “make” yourself optimistic. In fact, there are many other studies suggesting that mental attitudes can be modified or adjusted. And, going back to Cicero’s adage, gratitude is fundamental to that.
One of my favorite ways to improve my gratitude and optimism levels is through mindfulness meditation.
For instance, I like to use guided imagery meditation to visualize my best self and a fruitful future. While laying down to sleep, I imagine good things literally raining down from the heavens.
For guidelines on how to easily and effectively add this and other types of meditation to your busy life, please see my book with Don McCown: New World Mindfulness. To order a copy today, head over to www.DrMicozzi.com and shop the “Books” tab.
My personal path to gratitude
Each year, I like to share with my readers what makes me thankful. I’m also going to offer simple suggestions on how you can turn your own thankfulness into optimism… and live a longer life.
I’m thankful for a day of gratitude. There’s no time like Thanksgiving to start a gratitude practice.
Try ending your Thanksgiving day by writing down three things you’re grateful for—no matter how big or how small. The key is to actually think about and record them. Then, make a vow to do this practice daily. This simple step can help change your outlook and make you a more “naturally” positive and optimistic person.
These gratefulness lists are also particularly important when you’re stressed or feeling like you’re “striking out,” as they really make a difference for your mental and emotional health.
I’m thankful to spend time with friends and family. Plenty of research shows that feeling isolated or lonely can increase your risk of disease and even shorten your lifespan. So it’s important to surround yourself with friends and family. In fact, gathering with loved ones can create positive experiences, which leads me to my next suggestion…
Write those positive experiences down.
After you make your list of three things you’re grateful for, follow up with three positive things that happened to you that same day. These may not always come easily to you, but with practice, it will become a habit, and you’ll begin looking for positive things throughout each day.
I’m thankful to raise a glass (or two!) to toast my health. There’s a reason why so many toasts include the word “cheers.” Moderate drinking can make you feel good mentally, emotionally, and physically.
In fact, one study found that people who moderately consume alcohol are more likely to live to the age of 85 without dementia or other cognitive impairments, compared to non-drinkers. And perhaps more amazingly, men and women over 85 who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol (two or three drinks per day) were twice as likely to be cognitively healthy compared to non-drinkers.3 (I’ll expand on this in December’s issue of Insiders’ Cures—so, as always, stay tuned!)
Once again, researchers used age 85 as a benchmark, showing that optimistic people are many times more likely to live this long. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
I’m thankful for all of the delicious, healthy food we enjoy on Thanksgiving. Turkey is loaded with tryptophan, which helps increase levels of the feel-good chemical serotonin in the brain (for more about the health benefits of this traditional American bird, see page 8). There are also less traditional mood-boosting foods that I like to include in our family’s Thanksgiving Day feast. I like to think of it as creating optimism from the inside out…
- Fish and seafood. The omega-3 fatty acids in wild-caught fish like salmon, mackerel, and herring have been shown in reams of research to help fight depression. And the selenium in oysters, clams, and crab has been shown to have a positive effect on mood. Plus, oysters make a great ingredient for turkey stuffing!
- Spinach, other leafy greens, and broccoli. These vegetables are rich in B vitamins (especially folate) that help your serotonin levels soar. And they make a tasty and healthy side dish!
- Blueberries. I’ve written before about research showing that these tiny fruits pack a major punch against depression. And I’ll showcase their benefits even more next month. But for now, how about a blueberry pie to finish off your Thanksgiving feast?
- Dark chocolate. Top off your meal with a rich cup of hot cocoa made from at least 70 percent dark chocolate. As I wrote in the October issue of Insiders’ Cures, there’s plenty of research backing up chocolate’s near-mythical mood-enhancing properties.
And last but certainly not least…
I’m thankful for my work, my coworkers, and for you, dear reader. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to use my brain—and my heart—writing to you this month… and every day.
Few things inspire positivity and optimism more than feeling active, useful, and helpful to others. And this can take many forms—working, volunteering, spending time with children, grandchildren, or homeless animals… the list is long.
So this Thanksgiving, think about how you want to stay active and useful in the coming year, and then make a step-by-step action plan to achieve it.
I can’t leave here today without thanking each and every one of my readers. I love hearing from you, and I thoroughly enjoy sharing scientific knowledge to help better your life.
So, may you enjoy a happy, optimistic, and healthy holiday with friends and family. And perhaps you’ll even share some of these health benefits at the dinner table, over a delicious Thanksgiving feast!
1“Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sep 2019, 116 (37) 18357-18362.
2“Optimism and Cause-Specific Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study.” American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 185, Issue 1, 1 January 2017, Pages 21–29.
3“Alcohol Intake and Cognitively Healthy Longevity in Community-Dwelling Adults: The Rancho Bernardo Study.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2017; 59 (3): 803.