Study: Expecting Dark Future May Help Pessimists Live Longer

If I had a penny for every exhortation I’ve heard to think positive because it will be good for my health, I’d be a millionaire. But now a new study of some 40,000 people claims that the glass half empty may be better for us than the glass half full, at least in old age.

From the press release:

Older people who have low expectations for a satisfying future may be more likely to live longer, healthier lives than those who see brighter days ahead, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

“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,” said lead author Frieder R. Lang, PhD, of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany. “Pessimism about the future may encourage people to live more carefully, taking health and safety precautions.” The study was published online in the journal Psychology and Aging.

So the interpretation of the findings is a sort of a grasshopper-and-ant thing: Expect adversity, prepare for it, and you’ll fare better. But to my mind, there’s a trade-off: Traipsing through life in a rosy haze of optimism may certainly make for a more pleasant time. So perhaps there’s a happy medium? A sort of “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst?”

More from the press release:

Lang and colleagues examined data collected from 1993 to 2003 for the national German Socio-Economic Panel, an annual survey of private households consisting of approximately 40,000 people 18 to 96 years old. The researchers divided the data according to age groups: 18 to 39 years old, 40 to 64 years old and 65 years old and above. Through mostly in-person interviews, respondents were asked to rate how satisfied they were with their lives and how satisfied they thought they would be in five years.

Five years after the first interview, 43 percent of the oldest group had underestimated their future life satisfaction, 25 percent had predicted accurately and 32 percent had overestimated, according to the study. Based on the average level of change in life satisfaction over time for this group, each increase in overestimating future life satisfaction was related to a 9.5 percent increase in reporting disabilities and a 10 percent increased risk of death, the analysis revealed…

“Unexpectedly, we also found that stable and good health and income were associated with expecting a greater decline compared with those in poor health or with low incomes,” Lang said. “Moreover, we found that higher income was related to a greater risk of disability.”

The researchers measured the respondents’ current and future life satisfaction on a scale of 0 to 10 and determined accuracy in predicting life satisfaction by measuring the difference between anticipated life satisfaction reported in 1993 and actual life satisfaction reported in 1998. They analyzed the data to determine age differences in estimated life satisfaction; accuracy in predicting life satisfaction; age, gender and income differences in the accuracy of predicting life satisfaction; and rates of disability and death reported between 1999 and 2010. Other factors, such as illness, medical treatment or personal losses, may have driven health outcomes, the study said.

The findings do not contradict theories that unrealistic optimism about the future can sometimes help people feel better when they are facing inevitable negative outcomes, such as terminal disease, according to the authors. “We argue, though, that the outcomes of optimistic, accurate or pessimistic forecasts may depend on age and available resources,” Lang said. “These findings shed new light on how our perspectives can either help or hinder us in taking actions that can help improve our chances of a long healthy life.”

Readers, thoughts? The full paper is here.

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  • Pat

    If an individual, upon follow up five years later, has incurred some disability in the intervening time, naturally he would feel disappointed or worse, i.e. “overestimating life satisfaction. This line says it all and makes perfect sense: “… each increase in overestimating future life satisfaction was related to a 9.5 percent increase in reporting disabilities … “

  • ANNA

    Well, that’s good news for me, as my daughters love to refer to me as ‘Debbie Downer’. My retort is that no, I’m just Debbie Realistic! LOL.

  • Rosalind Joffe

    Does it matter?As a coach to people living with chronic health conditions and trying to stay employed, live productively, the hundreds with whom I’ve worked have shown me that this is a mental model that is hard to change and tends to be deeply wired.Sure ‘pessimists’ might think they’re more prepared but then again, they can make themselves ‘sick’ with worry and not have time to prepare. Optimists can ignore the ‘obvious’ but they an also be people who approach every challenge with belief in positive outcomes. I’ve seen in my own life and my clients that having hope that you will manage whatever comes up and resilience to manage it are foundations for happiness. And who wouldn’t prefer that (given the choice) to living a longer life?

  • rockhauler

    i’m tired of others telling me to think more positively. my response is: worriers are better prepared for the future, and we react with glee to everything that is unexpectedly positive. the problem is when people try to submerge their worrying and fail to use it productively for planning purposes. accept yourself and turn it to your advantage, but remember that life and death are crap shoots – there is no crystal ball, but one can prepare and therefore live a bit more securely. the best we can do is all we can do!

  • Handbasketexpress

    So, as a pessimist, am I supposed to feel good about this, or bad?

    • rockhauler

      see my earlier response. i’m so glad someone has raised this issue in a study. in business school one is trained to try to anticipate problems. what’s wrong with applying that to one’s own life?