Research is showing us that if you live a positive, happy lifestyle right now, not tomorrow or 10 years from now, barring health issues, you could live a longer life than someone who approaches each day with a negative outlook.
Among the most notable research we’ve found on this topic comes from Ed Diener, a Gallup senior scientist and former University of Illinois psychology professor. He took an in-depth look at more than 150 studies looking at the connections between aging and happiness. From one that tracked the life spans of almost 200 baseball players who were smiling in photos versus those who weren’t, to one that studied Scandinavian twins and yet another that analyzed how positive 180 nuns’ autobiographies were when entering the convent, what he found was one clear theme: Happy people tend to have longer, healthier lives.
Who lives the longest?
And in an interview with the University of Illinois News Bureau, he went so far as to say that, in his opinion, the data linking positive feelings and enjoying life to longevity is stronger than the claims that obesity reduces a person’s life span. That’s a pretty strong belief, but it’s one we should think about. Do you have the happiness and the positive attitude it will take to carry you to the century mark?
First, let’s define what happiness is and what it’s not: Happiness is not about being blind to the negatives in our environment. Happiness is believing you have the power to do something about those negatives. If you want to create positive change in your life, if you want to live a positive life, you have to first change your reality.
1. Keep a journal
In just two minutes, you can actually rewire your brain, allowing it to work more optimistically and more successfully. Write down three new things that you’re grateful for each day for 21 days in a row. At the end of that, your brain will start scanning the world, not for the negative, but for the positive. Then begin journaling about one positive experience you’ve had over the past 24 hours and allow your brain to relive it. These kinds of exercises teach your brain that your behavior matters.
2. Sleep matters
One of our favorite studies is from a 2008 issue of the Asia Pacific Management Review, which found that if you memorize sets of positive, neutral and negative words and then sleep for seven to eight hours, you will remember about 80 percent of all three lists a day later. If you miss a night of sleep and stay up, say 36 hours, you still remember most of the neutral and negative words, but 59 percent fewer of the positive words! This is because your brain interprets a lack of sleep as a threat to the central nervous system, then goes on high alert, scanning the world for additional threats—that is, negatives.
Get seven–eight hours of sleep per night."
Fatigue severely impairs our ability to see the positives in life, making sleep not just good for your health, but also your wellbeing. So, turn off the TV, put away the book and get seven to eight hours of shut-eye. praise and gratitude, you are doomed to a reality devoid of those things.
3. Stop fighting stress
No question, stress can be detrimental to our health. Countless books and entire research journals are dedicated to this topic. But that’s not the entire story: In fact, there is a huge body of research showing that stress can enhance our wellbeing. There exists an alternate but equally true reality in which stress is actually good for us.
Make stress work for you, not against you"
First, become aware of the stress. Second, look for the meaning behind it. (“I’m stressed about this project because I know I’ll get a promotion if I succeed.”) And third, channel your stress response to improve your motivation. Stress is a fight-or-flight response, and when you fight or flee from it, you only make it worse. Recognize it and then channel it in positive ways, improving both your life and happiness.
4. Expect the best outcome
Defensive pessimism, or assuming the worst until you are proved wrong, seems like a very safe position—that way you are never surprised and even have a plan in place. Sounds safe, right? The problem is, your brain constructs a world based on how you expect it to look. So if you can’t anticipate accomplishment, meaning, praise and gratitude, you are doomed to a reality devoid of those things.
Say, for example, you’re running a marathon. Don’t start out by thinking about the injuries you could sustain or about how embarrassing it would be if you didn’t finish. Instead, start by planning a training schedule, thinking about how good you’ll feel as your miles start increasing, and anticipating that nice dinner you and your family will eat after the race to celebrate your accomplishment. Expect success, and you’ll be more likely to find it.
And this is just the beginning. There are a number of ways you, too, can be happier and live a more positive lifestyle. So, put on a smile and relish every moment.
Shawn Achor is the New York Times best-selling author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. Shawn recently sat down with Oprah Winfrey to discuss his steps for achieving happiness on OWN’s Super Soul Sunday.
Michelle Gielan is an expert on the science of positive communication and how to use it to fuel success. She formerly served as a national news anchor for CBS News, and is the founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research, which works with companies and schools to raise employee engagement, productivity and happiness at work.