Study: Pessimists Live Longer, Healthier Lives

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.

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Why Do Pessimists Live Longer?

“Pessimism 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 themselves.

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How Was the Study Conducted? 

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.

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Are There Any Health Benefits to Optimism?

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:

  • Greater resistance to colds and other infections
  • Lower 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.
  • Better emotional health
  • Superior athletic performance. A study by Martin Seligman found that optimistic sports teams were more successful than those who expected to lose.  
  • Greater career success. Another Duke study found that MBA students with an upbeat attitude received more job offers and were promoted faster than their gloomier counterparts.

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