…because I’m an economist and a mom–that’s why!

Policy Implications of the Finding That “Optimistic Women Live Longer”

August 11th, 2009 . by economistmom


Here’s a fascinating story floating around today–it was called to my attention by the crawler underneath MSNBC’s coverage of President Obama’s town hall in New Hampshire, coincidentally on health care reform.  Apparently “optimistic women live longer“:

Optimistic women live longer and healthier lives than their pessimistic peers, a new study suggests.

Specifically, researchers found that women who see the glass as half full are at a lower risk for developing heart disease, and have a lower risk of dying from any cause, than those who see the glass as half empty.

Shocking news?  Not exactly.  Statisticians love to pick on this kind of analysis as an example of correlation but not necessarily causation.  More interesting is speculating on the directions in which any causal relationships run.  Is it that optimism causes better health (the “power of positive thinking” theory), or that better health causes greater optimism (the “rational observer” theory), or neither (that “better” and “beautiful” people just tend to be better in all ways–the “life is unfair” theory)?

I can see possible evidence of all of these theories in the cited study.  For example, the article goes on to explain that it’s not just optimism that correlates with living longer, it’s also pessimism that correlates with dying sooner:

The new research, detailed in the journal Circulation, also found that women with a high degree of cynical hostility — defined as harboring hostile thoughts toward others or having a general mistrust of people — were at a higher risk of dying in general…

Maybe that’s because acting hostile to others is more likely to get you murdered

And with this definition:

Optimism was defined as answering “yes” to questions like, “In unclear times, I usually expect the best.” Pessimism was defined as answering “yes” to questions like, “If something can go wrong for me, it will.”…

…this finding of the relationship with age doesn’t seem surprising:

[C]ertain factors are likely to make people more optimistic, particularly age — a 2006 study found that optimism tended to increase as people got older

…after all, the older you get, the more you say to yourself, “hey, I’ve already made it this far”–and more of your life is a realized past (which you survived), not an uncertain future.  And how about this rigorous finding:

A 2009 study suggests that humans are optimistic by nature

…which makes me at the same time wonder “compared with what attitudes of what other species?” (and how would you “measure” that, scientifically?) and think “yes, of course; I’m glad I’m not a polar bear stuck on a melting ice cap” (and there but for the grace of God…).

And finally, something in the article that suggests there could be a policy implication relevant to the current health care reform debate (emphasis and commentary added):

Researchers also found that optimists (as compared to pessimists) were more likely to be younger (especially in blacks) [yes, that's a contradiction from the previously-described age relationship]; live in the Western United States [must be because those hippie liberals out west are always on happy drugs]; report higher education and income [if you've got it, flaunt it]; be employed and have health insurance[!!!]; and attend religious services at least once a week [have I mentioned the grace of God?..].

So the immediate policy implications from this study could be any of the following, given the possible causal relationships underlying this correlation between optimism and having health insurance:

  • Stay the Course. The Obama Administration could argue that this is yet another example of a “game changer” that will “bend the health cost curve” in the right direction (downward), as providing people with health insurance will make them more optimistic people, and more optimistic people will be physically healthier people, and physically healthier people cost less to care for.  OR…
  • Change Strategy. The Obama Administration could go out on a new town hall tour with a totally new strategy.  Don’t try to explain health care reform to people; that can be boring and a little depressing, after all (what–”rationing” and tax increases?!!!).  Go out on a “Come On Get Happy Tour”–talk about why it’s great to be an American and great to be a human and great that as a human you’ve already survived up to this point in your life and probably still have a few happy years ahead of you.  Make people more optimistic, and maybe that will cause them to get better health insurance coverage.  (This isn’t exactly as far fetched as I make it sound, because there is a “power of positive thinking” aspect to both personal economic success and a willingness to compromise politically and think more altruistically.)  OR…
  • Give Up. The Obama Administration could drop the whole idea of health care reform, deciding that too much of this is in God’s hands, not in policymakers’ hands:  the “better” and “beautiful” qualities of people and how they’re distributed among people can’t be altered much by policy, be those qualities physical health, material wealth, or greatness of spirit.

But let me conclude this post on an optimistic note:  I am glad the country is having this “conversation” about health care reform and am optimistic that taking some time to think about the best way to accomplish it (and afford it) will ultimately produce a better plan that most Americans (at least the optimistic ones) will support.

And I am glad that I’m an American, glad that I’m a female human, glad that I’ve lived to my (youthful) “middle age.”  My own personal glass is definitely (more than) half full.

…and hopefully that just added a few hours to my lifetime.  ;)

2 Responses to “Policy Implications of the Finding That “Optimistic Women Live Longer””

  1. comment number 1 by: Anandakos

    “(W)hich makes me at the same time wonder ‘compared with what attitudes of what other species?’” Another fatuous non sequitur brutally lanced. Well done, Madame.

    On a more serious note, I guess I’m kind of in the “life isn’t fair” category, because it does seem to be true that beauty and competence — notwithstanding the “blonde jokes” — do seem to go hand in hand. Is it genetic blessing or a result of repeated encouragement from toadying wanna-bes or rejection from the in-crowd? I doubt we’ll ever know, and the answer is probably “some of each”. But there does seem to be a significant correlation.

  2. comment number 2 by: Anandakos


    I think I have a sad, but probably true, reason for the anomalous age trend in black people. Young blacks have not been subjected to American racial hatred to nearly the degree that their parents and grandparents have been (or in the case of the grandparents, mostly “were” since black people die so much younger than others). This is a tribute to our schools, which even in the South are doing a good job with the kind of integration that matters: friendships and hanging out together as young people.

    Maybe after having butted their heads up against racism for thirty years as an adults today’s young black folks will be less optimistic when they’re fifty, but for now this is a very good thing, and an optimistic indicator for our country.