Pessimists Live Longer

All the research is wrong. It’s not optimists who live longer, it’s all about the pessimist. Some believe that pessimism cuts your life because it causes stress, and that would seem logical. However, according to a new study by the American Psychological Association (APA), it just isn’t that simple.

Those who anticipated better days ahead between 65 and 96 didn’t measure up to those who expected the end to come. I can personally attest to this based on my own grandmother. She got sick multiple times, and we would go to her bedside, thinking this would be the last time. Then she would suddenly pull through. Sometimes, she even claimed to see my dead grandfather, which made her think it was time to go. She did eventually die, but she was over 90 years old. I can’t necessarily say this was a good thing, because as a pessimist of sorts, she was not happy. Towards the end especially, things were not sunny or healthy even.

According to Frieder R Lang, PhD of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, 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.

So where’s the logic? What’s the reason?

Theoretically, pessimists are more careful. They see the worst coming. So in most cases, they will live more carefully, avoid risks, eat healthier, etc. The stress doesn’t beat healthy living for most people. Optimists may live and let live, because they just assume things will go well. Optimists may also look through rose colored glasses, ultimately ignoring some small or pretty big warning signs, less likely to care for themselves and see the early issues.

Seniors and others who are more pessimistic will visit the doctor more, get regular exams such as colonoscopies, exercise, eat healthier, avoid smoking, etc. Those who are just in the happy mode may not consider these types of things necessary. Maybe they don’t even care if they die early or live in an unhealthy state. Maybe they hear what they want to hear when the doctor is actually trying to tell them to change.

So how did the study go?

Data collected between 1993 and 2003 was analyzed, gathering from the German Socio-economic Panel. These stats included 40,000 people between 18 and 96. They were divided into ages between 18 and 39, 40 and 64, and 65 and older. Their satisfaction in the last 5 years was assessed (by their answers), and they contacted these same people 5 years later. They tracked death and disability and found that:

  • 43% of the older group (pessimists) underestimated their later satisfaction
  • 25% were able to predict their satisfaction accurately
  • 32% (optimists) overestimated future satisfaction and health

This might open another door. If you are expecting the best, you may be more disappointed if things don’t go the way you had hoped. On the other hand, if you expected the worst and things go even moderately well, it would be a pleasant surprise, increasing your overall satisfaction with life and reducing stress. Overestimating future health and satisfaction increased disability by 9.5% and death by 10%.

Is optimism really all that great?

Positive thinking can reduce stress and therefore boost immune health. You may not get sick as often, and stress in any form can take a toll. Prior studies seem to show that optimists live longer, at least at first. I would definitely like to see more studies to confirm or contradict this idea.

To be fair, this Germany study largely targets those who are so optimistic that they deny reality. They put on their rose colored glasses and bury their head in the sand. They deny facts, even related to their health, not getting proper care, and they are therefore worse off medically than those who anticipate accurately and get all the right checks. They do worse than those who might visit and listen to their doctors.

Overall though, especially when younger, optimists are likely to avoid colds and flues. They obviously have better emotional health and are less prone to depression, and in some cases, optimistic sports teams were more likely to win. Career success may even be connected to this.

Should you be optimistic or pessimistic?

There are benefits to both. Personally, I wouldn’t want to live that long, let alone if I was pessimistic about it. It depends on the person though. If you are afraid of death, chances are you want to live as long as possible. Others just may not feel the same way.


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