Negative thinking can shorten your lifespan, study finds

How do you feel about life? About your future, the future of your loved ones, the future of humanity, the future of the planet?

Would you say you’re a glass-half full kind of person or are you more likely to see the potential negatives in most situations? Even if you’re usually a happy-go-lucky person, the events of the past 18 months have most likely taken a toll.

These might seem like airy-fairy questions but your answers could reveal a bit about your long-term health and even when you’re likely to die.

A QIMR Berghofer Institute study found that people who are strongly pessimistic are at a greater risk of dying earlier than those who are more positive.

Read: Negative thinking linked to dementia

Lead researcher Dr John Whitfield says: “We found people who were strongly pessimistic about the future were more likely to die earlier from cardiovascular diseases and other causes of death, but not from cancer.”

The research involved almost 3000 participants. They had completed a questionnaire on the health of Australians aged 50-plus back in the 1990s (between 1993 and 1995 to be exact). In the original survey, they were asked to agree or disagree with a number of positive statements.

The participants’ details were then crosschecked with the Australian National Death Index, which showed more than 1000 participants had died and revealed their cause of death.

The survey showed participants who scored higher on pessimism in the questionnaire were likely to die, on average, two years earlier than those with low scores.

Dr Whitfield is quick to point out that being optimistic won’t necessarily increase your life expectancy but being overly pessimistic is likely to shorten it.

Read: The power of positive change

“Optimism scores did not show a significant relationship with death, either positive or negative,” he says.

“The key feature of our results is that we used two separate scales to measure pessimism and optimism and their association with all causes of death.

“That is how we discovered that while strong pessimism was linked with earlier death, those who scored highly on the optimism scale did not have a greater than average life expectancy.”

It may be more than just the power of positive thinking at play here. In their book The Telomere Effect: The New Science of Living Younger, Drs Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel looked at the effects of negative thoughts on your telomeres – protective tips at the end of each chromosome.

“Telomeres, which shorten with each cell division, help determine how fast your cells age and when they die, depending on how quickly they wear down,” Dr Blackburn says.

Read: How to break the cycle of overthinking

Shorter telomeres mean faster ageing in the cells.

The doctors identified pessimism as one of five types of toxic thought patterns that are usually associated with shorter telomeres and, by extension, shorter life expectancy.

Dr Blackburn says there is evidence that negative thoughts have a physical effect on the length of telomeres.

“Your telomeres, it turns out, are listening to you. They absorb the instructions you give them. The way you live can, in effect, tell your telomeres to speed up the process of cellular ageing. But it can also do the opposite,” she says.

In the challenging pandemic world of 2021, it can be near on impossible to banish negative thoughts . But it really does pay, as we’re told in The Life of Brian, to always look on the bright side of life.

Do you consider yourself a generally positive person? Has the pandemic had an impact on your optimism? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer