January 2nd, 2020

You’ve been asked the question before. Are you a glass-half-full kind of person, or is your glass always half-empty?

You might think to yourself – who cares? After all, what difference does it make one way or the other?

Well, in August 2019 a remarkable study revealed that if your proverbial glass is always half-full, you are much more likely to live to a ripe old age than those people who think their glass is half-empty.

The statistics are astounding; optimistic women are 50 percent more likely to live until at least the age of 85, and optimistic males are 70 percent more likely to live that long. In other words, a pessimist’s lifespan is profoundly affected – indeed, reduced – as a result of their negative disposition.

The lead researcher for the study was USC graduate Dr. Lewina Lee, assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. She is clearly a glass-half-full type, because rather than seeing the results of the study as depressing for pessimists, she told reporters that the findings “raise an exciting possibility that we may be able to promote healthy and resilient aging by cultivating psychosocial assets such as optimism.”

Lee and her team analyzed data from two other long-term research projects, one of them focused on a large number of female nurses and the other on a smaller group of men.

The nurses were first evaluated for their optimism in 2004; at the time they had an average age of 70. The men were first assessed for optimism in 1986, when their average age was 62, and deaths were recorded until 2016

After splitting the more than 70,000 subjects into four roughly equal groups, based on how they scored for optimism, the research team then noted the lifespans of the most optimistic ones as compared to the lifespans of the least optimistic, while simultaneously accounting for other factors, such as age, race, education, and various physical and mental health conditions.

The study proved what has long been considered the case based on anecdotal evidence: positive people live longer and healthier lives. Yes, it’s true – not thinking the worst of every situation, or imagining the worst outcome, can actually increase your lifespan considerably.

The study’s co-author, Laura Kubzansky, Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, says that the reason for this extraordinary phenomenon is really quite simple: “more optimistic people [are more] able to regulate emotions and behavior, as well as bounce back from stressors and difficulties more effectively.”

Or, as the Israel-born Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman put it so beautifully in his book Thinking Fast and Slow: “If you are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person – you already feel fortunate.”

The corollary of optimism is that you eat better, you don’t suffer the negative consequences of anxiety and depression, and you actually feel like you want to live longer because you enjoy your life, even when things are undeniably challenging.

And it occurred to me that this entire concept can help us understand a puzzling Midrash about Jacob and how old he was when he died.

When Jacob had his audience with Pharoah after arriving in Egypt, the ruler of Egypt was quite shocked by Jacob’s very elderly and frail appearance and asked him how old he was (Gen. 47:8): וַיֹאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל יַעֲקֹב כַּמָה יְמֵי שְנֵי חַיֶיךָ – “Pharaoh said to Jacob, ‘how many years are the days of your life?’”

Jacob explained that the reason he looked so frail and old was because he had experienced a very hard life.

The Midrash comments that Jacob should have lived at least as long as his father, Isaac, who died at the age of 180. But Jacob died aged 147, a reduction of 33 years based on the number of words in this very exchange with Pharaoh as recorded in the portion of Vayigash.

The medieval Tosafists explain that God reminded Jacob of all the times He had saved him from life-threatening and challenging experiences, with the implication that Jacob had nothing to complain about – after all Esau had not managed to kill him, Laban had not got the better of him, and in the end, Joseph had turned up alive-and-well as the viceroy of Egypt.

To be frank, this Midrash is absolutely bewildering. While it is true that God saved Jacob from Esau and Laban, and reunited him with Joseph, just because there is a happy ending does not diminish the trauma of the situation as it unfolds and before the happy ending has happened. The tension and anxiety take their toll, and one can hardly blame Jacob for mentioning it as an explanation for his very aged appearance.

But I think the Midrash is presenting us with the two approaches to life we mentioned earlier and highlighting the lifechanging consequences of each.

Isaac could hardly be said to have had an easy life – pointedly, he was the subject of a harrowing near-death experience at the hands of his father at the Akeida. But it would appear he was a glass-half-full kind of person, and always saw the bright side of life, resulting in his remarkable longevity.

Meanwhile, his son Jacob was a worrier, and always took the glass-half-empty approach. His conversation with Pharaoh in Vayigash simply highlights this attitude, and the Midrash uses it as an opportunity to explain that this was why his lifespan was shorter than Isaac’s.

There is a quote often misattributed to Sir Winston Churchill, actually spoken by a long-forgotten British local politician, the mayor of Carlisle Bertram Carr, better known for his family’s eponymous biscuit company.

In his 1919 keynote speech to a convention of social reformers, Carr addressed some of the great challenges they faced in achieving their utopian goals, telling delegates that they must: “view these [matters] in the spirit of the optimist to whom every difficulty is an opportunity, and not as the pessimist, to whom every opportunity presents some difficulty.”

So true, and, as it turns out, your life may actually depend on it.

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