According to Anthony Ong of Cornell University, author of an article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, it is how we age that determines the quality of our lives.
The data he reviews suggest that positive emotions may be a powerful antidote to stress, pain and illness.
There are several pathways through which a positive attitude can protect against poor health later in life, like taking a proactive approach to ageing by regularly exercising, making time for a good night's sleep and avoiding unhealthy behaviours like smoking and risky sex. The benefits of healthy lifestyle choices may be even more important in older adults, as their bodies become more susceptible to disease.
An optimistic outlook can combat stress – a known risk factor for many diseases. Studies show that people with stronger positive emotions have lower levels of chemicals associated with inflammation related to stress. Also, by adopting a positive attitude, people may even be able to undo some of the physical damage caused by stress.
Ong, a developmental psychologist, became interested in the study of positive emotion during graduate school when he learned about what researchers call the paradox of ageing: despite the notable loss of physical function throughout the body, a person's emotional capacity seemed to stay consistent with age. Ong speculates that if positive emotions are indeed good for our health then, "one direct, measureable consequence of this should be the extended years of quality living."