The way we anticipate our futures and see the world around us, can have an impact on our health and longevity. That is: Optimism and pessimism can affect our physical and mental well-being. But which type of attitude is better for you?
Whether you’re an optimist or pessimist, the short answer is that there is inconclusive research about which trumps the other. Some studies have shown that optimism leads to greater longevity, while other studies have said the exact opposite — that pessimism preserves your health. It also largely depends on your age and circumstances; young people tend to be more idealistic than older adults, who approach the world with a more experienced and realistic viewpoint that can be seen as negative or pessimistic to those who preserves their hopes and ideals.
One study published in 2009 found that optimists were more likely to live longer than pessimists, thanks to a decreased chance of heart disease. The study reviewed 97,253 women over the age of 50 who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative, and found that the most optimistic women were 30 percent less likely to die of heart disease — and 14 percent less likely than their pessimistic counterparts to die from any cause during the study period. However, the authors noted that it might have been a general lifestyle of these cheery people that explained the association with decreased heart disease risk rather than just the optimism itself: perhaps people who are more upbeat are also more likely to exercise more, be more active, and retain strong social groups. “Optimistic people seem to seek medical advice and follow it,” an author of the study, Hilary Tindle, said. “They [also] have good social networks and strong social relationships,” which are stress coping mechanisms. However, others have argued that realists actually end up more prepared for the challenges life throws at them, thus reducing anxiety and uncertainty.
Advantages to Both
Of course, no one is entirely a pessimist or 100 percent an optimist. We are more of a walking greyscale of different attitudes, and studies have shown we actually choose which perspective to take on based on which one will be more functional at the moment.
One study out of Northwestern University and the University of St. Thomas found that there were advantages to both an optimistic and a pessimistic worldview — “both biases are thought to be potentially functional,” the authors wrote. The researchers also noted that people actually switch between the two in order to milk the advantages of both, “based on the perceived value of each outlook.” Which outlook you choose also depends on where your motivation stems from; people who were primarily concerned with growth or advancement (referred to as “promotion”) tended to manifest an optimistic view, while those concerned with safety and security — or preventing negative outcomes — focused more on potential downfalls and pessimism in order to improve performance.
People who are concerned with potential downfalls in a project, for example, tend to handle criticism much better than optimists. Pessimists are always looking to identify the holes or mistakes in a line of thinking so that they can become better. But optimists might fare better in situations where persistence and not giving up, even in the face of extreme adversity, may take them farther than people who focus only on what will go wrong, blocking them from their goal.
We can put on our rose-colored glasses for certain situations and be a wet blanket in others, using both optimism and pessimism in a targeted way, rather than having one blanket policy the entire time.