Positive thinking may be the secret to staying healthy in old age research finds. A study finds that optimists who believe their life has a meaning “walk faster, have stronger grips, and suffer less pain as they get older”.
Researchers at University College London questioned more than 7,000 people aged 50 to 90 on how meaningful they felt their life was. Specifically, the study asked them to rate how meaningful they felt their lives were on a scale of 0 to 10.
The study also asked a variety of other questions about people’s lives and found respondents who rated their lives most meaningful, with a score of 9 or 10, were 10% most likely to be among the highest earners. The same group were around a third less likely to be depressed, were less obese, and were a fifth more likely to get good or very good sleep at night.
They also walked faster, ate better and were less likely to be disabled or suffer from chronic illnesses. Experts theorize that a sense of meaning can offer people the motivation to live more healthily, with those who see life as most worthwhile also being 11% more likely to exercise.
Those who perceived life most worthwhile were 16% more likely to be married and 13% less likely to live alone. They were also 13% more likely to see friends at least weekly, and much more likely to be a member of an organization, such as a church, Neighbourhood Watch, or a social club.
Conversely, the researchers found those whose lives held the least meaning spent almost twice as much time alone during the day – more than 6 hours on average. They also spent 50 minutes more a day watching television.
“Social engagement is a very important component of living a meaningful life for many people,” said lead author Professor Andrew Steptoe, from the department of behavioral science and health. “Being a member of an organization may be meaningful in itself, but it can also provide social contact.
“Finding meaning when you are sitting on your own is quite tricky since for most people this is linked to their relationships. We were struck by how important this feeling of meaning was, with people who saw their lives as meaningful being much more healthy as well as being socially engaged.”
To feel that sense of meaning, the results point to the importance of spending time with other people. Those who rated their life’s meaning between 0 and 2 spent 5 hours and 18 minutes alone during the average day, compared to 2 hours and 46 minutes for people who saw their lives as more meaningful.
People were also more likely to see their life as worthwhile if they volunteered, did a cultural activity like visiting a museum or the theatre at least every few months.
Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Steptoe said about the results, “There seems to be a virtuous circle, as having a good relationship with others improves people’s sense of meaning, which can then lead to more social activities.”
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