Research suggests that personality traits like optimism and having a sense of purpose can benefit your health in a number of different ways, and ultimately help you live longer.
One recent study1,2 has even linked having a sense of purpose in life to reduced odds of suffering a stroke. More than 450 elderly were included in the study, and underwent annual physical and psychological evaluations until their death.
Purpose in life was judged on a five-point scale, and for every one-point increase in the score, the odds of having a macroscopic infarction (clearly visible stroke damage at autopsy) went down by about 50 percent.
In all, those with a strong sense of life purpose were 44 percent less likely to have suffered the kind of major brain tissue damage that drives up your risk of age-related dementia and disability.
“We and others have shown that purpose in life is protective against multiple adverse health outcomes in older age… Importantly, purpose in life may be improved through changes in behaviors or participation in activities like volunteerism, among other things.”
Having a sense of purpose in life is a key component of psychological well-being, and involves finding meaning in what you do and who you are, and leading a goal-directed life. According to the study:
“Older people with a greater sense of purpose are less likely to develop adverse health outcomes, including mortality, decline in physical function, frailty, disability, Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and clinical stroke.”
Is Your Personality Geared for Longevity?
Having a sense of purpose and staying productive has also been shown to promote longevity in The Longevity Project,4 a Stanford study spanning 80 years. Here, your level of conscientiousness, specifically, was identified as a marker for longevity.
The reason for this, the researchers believe, is because conscientious behavior influences other behaviors.
For example, conscientious people tend to make healthier choices, such as avoiding smoking, choosing work they enjoy, and life partners they get along with — factors that can have a significant impact on their stress level and general contentment.
Conscientious people also tend to be more productive, even past conventional retirement age, and tend to regard their work as having purpose.
The Longevity Project dismisses the idea that hard work will kill you early. On the contrary, those who stay productive and work hard all their lives actually tend to be happier, healthier, and more social compared to those who don’t work as hard.
Positive Attitudes Also Reduce Heart Disease Risk and Influences Gene Expression
Other studies have shown that positive thoughts and attitudes can strengthen your immune system, decrease pain and chronic disease, and provide stress relief.
For instance, one study5 found that happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, and other positive psychological attributes are associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
It’s even been scientifically shown that happiness can alter your genes. A team of researchers at UCLA showed that people with a deep sense of happiness and well-being had lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and stronger antiviral and antibody responses.6
This falls into the realm of epigenetics — changing the way your genes function by altering environmental factors, which includes your thoughts and emotions.
How to Rewire Your Brain for Health and Happiness
But what if you’re not already optimistic, happy, satisfied, and living with a sense of purpose; what do you do then? Not to worry. While it may seem like certain psychological attitudes are ingrained to the point of being unalterable, the reality is you can change your attitude.
Forbes7 recently listed a number of strategies recommended by Davidson, Ph.D., author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain, to rewire the neural pathways in your brain to boost optimism, focus, self-awareness, and other health-boosting attitudes. This includes:
- Surrounding yourself with reminders, such as photos or mementos, of happy times
- Regularly expressing gratitude
- Complementing people on things you like or appreciate about them
- Practicing mindfulness
- Visualizing compassion.
If you’d like to be more resilient, Davidson suggests doing this exercises for five to 10 minutes at a time, four or five times a week:
“Visualize someone you know who is suffering — a neighbor who is ill or a friend struggling in their marriage — and on each inhalation imagine that you are taking on that suffering. On each exhalation, imagine the suffering is transformed into compassion, which will help ease the person’s pain,” Forbes writes.
Your Brain Keeps Growing and Changing Throughout Life
Until recently, it was believed that the human brain could not generate new neural cells once brain cells died or were damaged. This old model is no longer relevant, as it’s been proven that your brain can not only generate new cells (neurogenesis), it can also create new neural pathways.
So, you actually have far more control over your brain and mind than you might think. As suggested by Dr. Davidson, you can even rewire your brain to become more optimistic — and that alone could create a beneficial feedback loop that promotes health in the rest of your body.
The ability of your brain to change and adapt in response to experience is known as neuroplasticity.8 You can think of those neurological changes as your brain’s way of tuning itself to meet your needs. One example of this is when you’re learning a new skill.
The more you focus and practice, the better you become, and this is a result of new neural pathways that form in response to your learning efforts. At the same time, your brain is undergoing “synaptic pruning” — elimination of the pathways you no longer need.
This phenomenon applies to emotional states as well. For example, if you have a history of anxiety, your neural pathways become wired for anxiety. If you develop tools to feel calm and peaceful more of the time, those anxiety pathways are pruned away from lack of activity — “use it or lose it” really applies here. Besides life experiences and/or mental training, your brain’s plasticity is also controlled by your diet, and lifestyle choices such as exercise. Despite what the media tells you, your brain is not “programmed” to shrink and fail as you age.
The foods you eat, exercise, emotional states, sleep patterns, and your level of stress — all of these factors influence your brain from one moment to the next. All of these factors also influence your genetic expression. It’s important to realize that any given gene is not in a static “on” or “off” position. You may be a carrier of a disease-activating gene that never gets expressed, simply because you never supply the required environment to turn it on. As explained by neurologist David Perlmutter:
“We interact with our genome every moment of our lives, and we can do so very, very positively. Keeping your blood sugar low is very positive in terms of allowing the genes to express reduced inflammation, which increase the production of life-giving antioxidants.
“So that’s rule number one: You can change your genetic destiny. Rule number two: you can change your genetic destiny to grow new brain cells… You are constantly growing new brain cells into your 50s, 60s, 80s, and 90s — throughout your lifetime — through a process called neurogenesis.”
Protect Your Brain with Wise Lifestyle Choices
A number of simple lifestyle strategies have proven to promote neurogenesis. This includes exercise, especially high-intensity interval training, calorie restriction (intermittent fasting appears to have many of the same benefits while being easier to comply with), and reducing non-vegetable carbohydrate (especially grains and sugars). According to Dr. Perlmutter, who wrote the excellent book Grain Brain, a low-carb, high-fat diet is a key component of Alzheimer’s prevention. Gluten appears to be particularly problematic for brain health.
You also need plenty of high-quality omega-3 fats. I prefer krill oil to fish oil, as krill oil also contains astaxanthin, which is particularly beneficial for your brain. Astaxanthin is a carotenoid that’s very good for reducing free radical-mediated damage to fat — and your brain is 60 or 70 percent fat.
Two other nutrients that play important roles in your brain health are vitamin D and choline. Researchers have located metabolic pathways for vitamin D in the brain’s hippocampus and cerebellum; areas that are involved in planning, information processing, and memory formation. In older adults, research has shown that low vitamin D levels are associated with poorer brain function.
Choline also reduces inflammation and plays a role in nerve communication. Eggs and meat are two of the best dietary sources of choline. If you do not consume animal foods, you may be at risk of a deficiency and want to consider supplementation. Last but not least, the state of your gut can also have a significant influence on your brain function. Your gut is quite literally your “second brain.”
Just as you have neurons in your brain, you also have neurons in your gut, and gut bacteria transmit information from your GI tract to your brain via your vagus nerve. Abnormal gut flora has been associated with abnormal brain development, and may be an overlooked culprit in many cases of depression. In addition to avoiding sugar, one of the best ways to support gut health is to consume fermented vegetables, which are loaded with beneficial bacteria.
Healthy Choices and a Sunny Disposition Can Prevent Many Ills
The takeaway message here is that you have a great deal of control over your mind, brain health, and life expectancy, based on the personal choices you make — from how you think to how you move, and what you choose to eat — and when. For a comprehensive food guide, see my free nutrition plan, which also addresses intermittent fasting.
In the end, there is no quick fix when it comes to longevity. There is no magic pill and no fountain of youth. But the solution doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated either. Once you’ve memorized the basics, eating right and exercising becomes routine, and doesn’t require much thought.
Speaking of thought, you’d be wise to keep your mind as active as your body. Remember, learning something new is one way to keep your brain young, so remaining a lifelong student is a good idea. Research9 has shown that engaging in cognitively stimulating activities both early and late in life is associated with slower late-life cognitive decline. Conversely, if you don’t sufficiently challenge your brain with new, surprising information, it eventually begins to deteriorate.