“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”–And You Just Might Live a Longer and Better Life: A Positive Outlook’s Effect on Health

My youngest granddaughter is, according to her father, a Super-Spreader, a throwback to the days of SARS.

When she gets a cold, it’s not enough to share it with her nanny, mother and father–rather, she magnanimously bestows it upon all her grandfathers and grandmothers, her aunts, her cousins, her little friends in play group–no one is really immune.

Turns out all we need is a little positive thinking.So when she starts with the sniffling and sneezing, out household goes into full-scale defense mode: We pull out the Echinacea and goldenseal and pretty much mainline it, the orange juice gets chugged, we’re careful about our sleep, we wash our hands obsessively.

That’s right. In a study entitled “Emotional style and susceptibility to the common cold” researchers studied 334 healthy subjects aged 18 to 54 (I sense some ageism here). They analyzed the people for their tendency to experience positive emotions, like happy, pleased and relaxed–and then for negative emotions, like anxious, hostile, and depressed.

Then–and I don’t know who volunteers for these things–the subjects were given nasal drops containing a rhinovirus and monitored–in quarantine–for the development of a common cold.

And lo and behold!  What they called ‘positive emotional style (PES)’ was correlated with lower risk of developing a cold. And it was correlated in a  dose-response manner; translation: the happier you are, the less chance of getting that cold.

Guess next time my granddaughter comes in the house, nose and eyes streaming, I’ll just have to relax a little, be a little happier that my beloved germ-ball is approaching–and I’m safe! I mean, really–who knew?

Beyond preventing the common cold, a positive outlook provides a number of other services, as well.   For example, a study entitled “Preoperative state of mind among patients undergoing CABG: effect on length of stay and postoperative complications” looked at 565 patients, 65 and older, undergoing elective elective coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) . They divided the patients into 2 groups–the optimistic and the pessimistic–based on mental health scores prior to surgery.

The researchers adjusted for age, gender, and severity of disease and then they found: the average length of stay for the pessimistic patients was 1.3 days longer than for optimistic ones. AND optimism was associated with decreased risk of prolonged ventilation time.

And just when you were sold on the topic of trying to be happy, even if it’s not your nature, here come some big sells. For when you look at other studies, they claim, time and again, that an optomistic disposition can basically keep you alive longer.

In a 15-year-long study, “Dispositional optimism and the risk of cardiovascular death: the Zutphen Elderly Study,” the researchers analyzed 545 men from 64-84 years old, who had no diagnosis or signs of heart disease or cancer. They looked for what they termed ‘dispositional optimism’ in these men which was comprised of engagement with life and positive expectations for their future.

This dispositional optimism was assessed in 1985, 1990, 1995, and 2000. And what should they find, but that this dispositional optimism “shows a graded and inverse association with the risk of cardiovascular death.” I mean, forget the treadmill; just expect that life will go well–and, it seems, it will!

And, in one of my favorite studies on the topic, “Positive emotions in early life and longevity: findings from the nun study” (the name cracks me up), the researchers analyzed handwritten autobiographies from 180 young Catholic nuns entering their service, and scored them for positive emotional content and related that survival in the ages 75-95.  Sure enough, they found a significant inverse correlation between positive emotional content in these writings and risk of mortality in late life.

The young nuns who focused on happiness in their writings went on to live an average of 6.9 years longer than nuns whose writings were more kvetchy, or demonstrated unhappiness. They conclude, “positive emotional content in early-life autobiographies was strongly associated with longevity 6 decades later.” So to sum this up, happy, optimistic young nuns grew to become old nuns with more regularity than the negative nuns. There you have ‘the nun study.’

And in one of those scientific titles that fails to titillate the reader, “Positive affect predicts lower risk of AIDS mortality,” researchers found, indeed, that. . . well, what do you think?

The subjects were 407 men who were HIV+ when the study began.  The researchers assessed affect using the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D), and found that, after following the subjects at 12, 24, and 36 months, positive affect seemed to play a key role among those with a decreased death rate. Scientists aren’t, as a group, the types to make high-falutin’ claims in their research studies. But this conclusion was all but tepid, as they write, “Positive affect seems to be the “active ingredient” in the association of scores on the CES-D depressive mood scale and mortality in this sample of HIV+ men.”  Pretty impressive, no?

To finish off–and there are many more studies, addressing issues from increased wound healing for diabetics to boosted immunity to decreased incidences of depression, but I’m demonstrating pity on my poor readers–I’d like to return to the topic of cancer, if I may.

It seems that optimism can even play a role in lung cancer survival. Ready for this study’s title? It’s “A pessimistic explanatory style is prognostic for poor lung cancer survival.” I know–just leaves you hanging.

Utilizing the Optimism-Pessimism scale (PSM) of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), the researchers divided patients into those with pessimistic and those with optimistic personality styles. Then they analyzed the survival time of 534 adults with lung cancer, and related it to the personality style.

And what should they find, but that, “Patients who exhibited a non-pessimistic explanatory style survived approximately 6 months longer than patients classified as having a pessimistic explanatory style.”

Now there’s still a painful truth underlying that fact, and it’s the truth of the deadliness of lung cancer. Five-year survival rates were a mere 32.9% for optimists–not a rave review, really–but it compares to 21.2% for pessimists. And, fascinatingly enough, the relationship between outlook and survival is independent of smoking status, cancer stage, treatment, age, and gender [italics mine]. That is pretty astounding.

It appears unrefuted that a positive, optimistic outlook is just plan good for you.

So, go through all those old songs, repeat the chorus in your head, think, “Don’t worry, be happy,” think, “Put on a happy face.” Then–if you’re not ready to scream by being ordered about by the musical community–actually give it a try. Think positive. I mean, do you have a better way to fight off the common cold?

And if you do–are you available to babysit for my granddaughter this Saturday night? It takes a hearty-and very happy!- soul to  face down the Germ Queen.

See also:


Cohen S, et al. Emotional style and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychosomatic Medicine 2003; 65(4):652-7.

Danner DD, Snowdon DA, Friesen WV. Positive emotions in early life and longevity: findings from the nun study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2001; 80(5):804-13.

Giltay EJ, et al. Dispositional optimism and the risk of cardiovascular death: The Zutphen Elderly Study. Archives of Internal Medicine 2006; 166(4):431-6.

Halpin LS, Barnett SD. Preoperative state of mind among patients undergoing CABG: effect on length of stay and postoperative complications. Journal of Nursing Care Quality 2005; 20(1):73-80.

Mavros MN, et al. Do psychological variables affect early surgical recovery? PLoS One 2011; 6(5):e20306.

Moskowitz J. Positive affect predicts lower risk of AIDS mortality. Psychosomatic Medicine 2003; 65:620-626.

Novotny, Paul. A pessimistic explanatory style is prognostic for poor lung cancer survival. Journal of Thoracic Oncology 2010; 5(3):326-332.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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