Pessimists rejoice: Low
expectations about the future and a gloomy outlook could be the keys to a
longer, healthier life, according to a surprising new study published by the American
Psychological Association (APA).
In the study, older people, ages 65
to 96, who thought life would get worse had much better health outcomes and
lived longer than those who anticipated better days ahead.
"Our findings revealed that being overly
optimistic in predicting a better future was associated with a greater risk of
disability and death within the following decade," lead author Frieder R.
Lang, PhD, of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany told the APA.
about the future may encourage people to live more carefully, taking health and
safety precautions,” theorized Lang. The research was published online in the
journal Psychology and Aging.
The researchers also point out that optimists may look
at life through rose-colored glasses and ignore the truth about the health
risks associated with aging, while the pessimists have a more realistic view of
the threats ahead and thus may be more proactive about taking care of themselves.
For example, seniors who anticipate that their health
is likely to decline may get more medical exams, exercise more, lose weight, avoid
smoking, or eat a better diet to ward off disease, while those with a “don’t
worry, be happy” outlook may not consider it necessary to take steps to protect
The researchers analyzed data collected between 1993
and 2003 from the German Socio-Economic Panel, an annual survey that includes
about 40,000 people ages 18 to 96. Participants were divided into three age
groups: 18 to 39, 40 to 64, and 65 and older. Each group was then asked to rate how
satisfied they were with their lives currently and how satisfied they expected
to be in five years.
To find out how accurate the participants’
expectations about the future were, the researchers contacted the participants
five years after the initial interview. They also tracked rates of death and
disability during that time span, with the following results:
43 percent of the oldest group (the pessimists)
had underestimated how satisfied they would be
25 percent predicted accurately
32 percent (the optimists) had overestimated
their future satisfaction
The more overly optimistic the seniors were
about the future, the higher their rates of disability and death were during the
study period. Each increase in overestimating future life satisfaction was
associated with a 9.5 percent rise in disabilities and 10 percent increased
risk of death, the study found.
The Mayo Clinic reports
that positive thinking can boost health by reducing stress. Tension and worry
take a toll on the immune system by reducing its ability to fight disease. In
addition, some previous studies link optimism to longer life. While that may
seem to directly contradict the new study, it’s important to note the German
researchers were evaluating the effects of unrealistic
optimism—the type of people who bury their head in the sand and refuse to
face facts—not those who correctly anticipate that things will go well.
Researchers have also linked
looking on the bright side to these benefits:
resistance to colds and other infections
risk of death from heart disease. Duke researchers tracked 2,800 patients
who had been hospitalized for heart disease. Patients were asked to fill out a
questionnaire about their feelings about their diagnosis, treatment, and
prospects for recovery. Ten years later, 46 percent of those with a bleak
outlook had died, compared to 32 percent of those with the positive outlook.
athletic performance. A study by Martin Seligman found that optimistic
sports teams were more successful than those who expected to lose.
career success. Another Duke study found that MBA students with an upbeat
attitude received more job offers and were promoted faster than their gloomier