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Are you an optimist? Could you learn to be? Your Health May Depend On It - Monterey Herald

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When you think about the future, do you expect good or bad things to happen?

If you weigh on the “good” side, you are an optimist. And that has positive implications for your health later in life.

Several studies show a strong association between higher levels of optimism and a reduced risk of diseases such as heart disease, stroke and cognitive impairment. Several studies have also linked optimism to greater longevity.

One of the latest, published this year, comes from researchers at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, in collaboration with colleagues from other universities. Older women who scored highest on measures of optimism were found to live 4.4 years longer, on average, than those with lowest scores. The results were found to be true regardless of race and ethnicity.

Why would optimism make such a difference?

Experts offer various explanations: optimistic people cope better with the challenges of daily life and are less likely to experience stress than people with less positive attitudes. They are more likely to eat well and exercise, and they often have stronger networks of family and friends who can support them.

Additionally, optimistic people tend to engage in problem-solving strategies more effectively and regulate their emotions better.

Of course, a feedback loop is at play here: people may be more likely to be optimistic if they enjoy good health and a good quality of life. But optimism is not limited to those who are doing well. Studies suggest that it is a genetically inherited trait and can be cultivated through concerted interventions.

What does optimism look like in practice? To get some answers, I spoke to several seniors who identify as optimists but don’t take this characteristic for granted. Instead, it’s a choice they make every day.

Patricia Reeves, 73, Oklahoma City. “I’ve had a pretty good life, but I’ve had my share of trauma, like everyone else,” said Reeves, a seven-year-old widow who lives alone. “I think it was my faith and my optimism that got me through this.”

A lifelong teacher and school principal, Reeves retired to care for her parents and her second husband, a Baptist minister, before their deaths. During the covid-19 pandemic, she said, “I developed my spirituality.”

When I asked her what optimism meant to her, Reeves replied, “You can see the good in every situation, or you can see the negative. When something doesn’t go my way, I prefer to ask myself, ‘What am I learning from this? What role did I play in this, and am I repeating patterns of behavior? How can I change?

When it comes to the challenges that come with aging — the loss of friends and family health issues — Reeves spoke of optimism as a “power” attitude that keeps her alive. “You don’t spend your time focusing on your health or thinking about your aches and pains. You take it for granted and then you let it go,” she said. Or if you have a problem you can solve, you figure out how to solve it and move on to the next day.

“There’s always something to be grateful for, and you focus on that.”

“Not having my own family, I was able to touch the lives of many others,” says Grace Harvey, of LaGrange, Georgia, who turned 100 this year. “I am grateful that God let me live so long: I always want to be there to help someone.” (Jacqueline Bunn)

Grace Harvey, 100, LaGrange, Georgia. “I look for the best to happen in all circumstances,” said Harvey, a retired teacher and dedicated Baptist. “You can overcome any situation with God’s help.”

His parents, farmers and teachers in Georgia, barely earned enough to live on. “Even if you classified us as poor, I didn’t consider myself poor,” she said. “I just considered myself blessed to have parents doing their best.”

Today, Harvey lives in a mobile home and teaches Sunday school. She never married or had children, but she was surrounded by loving family members and former students at her 100th birthday party in October.

“Not having my own family, I was able to touch the lives of many others,” she said. “I am grateful that God let me live so long: I always want to be there to help someone.”

Ron Fegley, 82, Placer County, CA. “I’m optimistic about the future because I think things are looking up for the long term,” said Fegley, a retired physicist who lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills with his wife.

“Science is a very important part of my life, and science is always on the upward path,” he continued. “People can have bad ideas for a while, but eventually new experiences and data come in and fix things.”

Fegley tends to a small orchard where he grows peaches, cherries and pears. “We don’t know what will happen; no one does,” he told me. “But we’re enjoying our life right now, and we’re going to continue to enjoy it as much as we can.”

Anita Lerek, over 65, Toronto. “I was a very troubled young person,” said Lerek, who declined to give his exact age. “Part of that was because my parents were Holocaust survivors and joy wasn’t a huge part of their menu. They struggled a lot and I was resentful.

When I asked him about optimism, Lerek described exploring Buddhism and learning to take responsibility for his thoughts and actions. “Mine is cultivated optimism,” she told me. “I consult my books – the Buddhist teachings, the Talmud – they have taught me a lot. You face all your demons and you cultivate a garden of wisdom, projects and emotional connections.

At this point in life, “I’m grateful for every moment, every experience, because I know it could end at any time,” said Lerek, a lawyer and entrepreneur who writes poetry and still works part-time. . “It boils down to, ‘Is the glass half empty or half full?’ I choose wholeness.

“Now that I’m 88, my job is to live in the present and believe things will be better, maybe not in my lifetime but decades from now,” says Katharine Esty, a social psychologist in Concord, Massachusetts. “Life will prevail, the world will go on – it’s a kind of trust, I think.” (Hulihan Courier)

Katharine Esty, 88, Concord, Mass. When Esty fell into funk after turning 80, she searched for a guide to what to expect in the coming decade. None existed, so she wrote Eightysomethings: A Practical Guide to Let Go, Well Aging, and Finding Unexpected Happiness.

For the project, Esty, a social psychologist and psychotherapist, interviewed 128 people in their 80s. “The more people I talked to, the happier I became,” she told me. “People were doing interesting things, leading interesting lives, even though they were dealing with a lot of loss.

Not only was I learning things, but having that purpose and focus brought me so much joy. My vision of what was possible in old age has broadened considerably.

Part of what Esty has learned is the importance of “letting go of our inner vision of what our life should be like and being open to what’s really going on.”

For example, after stomach surgery last year, Esty needed physical therapy and had to use a walker. “I’ve always prided myself on being a very active person and had to come to terms with my vulnerability,” she said. Likewise, although her 87-year-old boyfriend thought he would spend his retirement fishing in Maine, he can’t walk well now, and he can’t.

“I’ve come to think that you choose your attitude, and optimism is an attitude,” said Esty, who lives in a retirement community. “Now that I am 88, my task is to live in the present and believe that things will be better, maybe not in my lifetime but decades from now. Life will prevail, the world will go on – it’s a kind of trust, I think.

We look forward to hearing from readers about the questions you’d like answered, the issues you’ve had with your care, and the advice you need for dealing with the health care system. Visit to submit your requests or advice.