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The Benefits of Optimism

Even a lifelong pessimist can learn to expect the best

My husband is the house optimist. If he had a personal credo, it would probably be "It'll be great. You'll see!"

True example: I once watched him paddling a metal canoe — while a thunderstorm boiled overhead — and saying, "It'll be great. You'll see!"

See also: 7 ways to live in the moment.

Jane Pauley

Phot by Andrew Eccles

Jane Pauley

It's said that the best predictor of the future is the past, and having never been struck by lightning before, my husband is pretty confident he won't be struck by lightning ever. I certainly hope he's right!

The way I see it, though, the odds of not being struck by lightning are greatly improved by avoiding metal canoes during thunderstorms. That doesn't make me a pessimist. A pessimist presumes the worst; I just like to be prepared for it. Maybe I'm a realist.

If I could choose, I would be an optimist, and not just because optimism is linked to good health. Studies show it can also lead to personal success

The midlife transition is hard enough, but it must be easier for people who don't fret over obstacles. The experts say that after a reasonable period of information-gathering about your next step in life, it's best to just do something, rather than wait for the perfect thing. And from what I've seen, I agree. Optimists are more likely to put their boats in the water and try. Trial and error is the best path to successful reinvention.

But I have good news for those of us who weren't born optimists. The old adage "Life begins at 40" was wrong. A person's lifetime level of happiness tends to hit its lowest point in the 40s and increase from there, according to researchers at Dartmouth College and England's University of Warwick. Of course they found individual variations, but on average, the 40s were the age during which people felt most down and discouraged.

By age 50, though, feelings of well-being rebound and gather momentum! As one Warwick researcher has said, "By the time you are 70, if you are still physically fit, then on average you are at least as happy and mentally healthy as a 20-year-old."

I find this very encouraging. I'm no blue-sky Pollyanna, and I'll still advise you to keep a weather eye out for trouble. But it's nice to know there's reason for optimism. In our 50s and beyond, we may have the wind at our backs.

Award-winning journalist Jane Pauley is AARP's Your Life Calling ambassador.