Writing in the Wall Street Journal this week, Sumathi Reddy explores research weighing the health and lifespan effects of having a pessimistic or optimistic personality.
The different types of optimism and pessimism
The distinction isn't so simple. Pessimism and optimism are extreme ends of the spectrum of personality traits, and most people fall somewhere between the two. Moreover, pessimism and optimism come in different forms, such as:
- Trait or dispositional optimism and pessimism, which is a chronic tendency to have positive or negative expectations;
- Explanatory optimism/pessimism, which is a way of explaining why bad things occur (optimists would blame external factors, while pessimists would blame themselves);
- Defensive pessimism, a strategy for handling anxiety that involves lowering expectations; and
- Strategic optimism, in which people focus on positive things when faced with an anxiety-provoking event.
How one's outlook affects one's health
Overall, the most common view in positive psychology—which is the study of how to make people happy—is that optimism leads to better physical and mental health outcomes. Many studies have shown a link between optimism—explanatory and dispositional—and positive health outcomes.
However, some studies have suggested that pessimism can have a positive effect on health:
- A 2013 German study found that older people with pessimistic perspectives of the future lived longer than those with a rosier outlook. Overall, they found that pessimists were about 10% more likely to maintain their health and survive than optimists. "Those who are defensively pessimistic about their future may be more likely to invest in preparatory or precautionary measures, whereas we expect that optimists will not be thinking about those things," says lead author Frieder Lang.
At the marginsThe extreme pessimist's argument for population health
- A long-term study that followed 1,528 people for 80 years found that subjects considered the most optimistic as children died sooner. "We were really curious about this finding that the more pessimistic kids—those who were in the lower quartile—were actually living longer lives," says La Sierra University researcher Leslie Martin, co-author of a book on the subject.
- A 2011 study found that being optimistic can be a disadvantage when confronted with stressful situations. For the study, University of Dayton researchers analyzed 250 couples and found that the optimistic people did not cope with stress as well as the pessimistic ones.
Generally, experts suggest a balance of optimism and pessimism for optimal physical and mental health. "One should be more optimistic than pessimistic but not 100% optimistic… It is much better to have a balanced perspective and have some pessimistic streak in your personality in order to succeed," says University of California-San Diego professor Dilip Jeste, adding the perfect balance "may be something like 70-30" (Reddy, Wall Street Journal, 8/5).