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Study uncovers health benefits of pessimism

Published: Monday, March 4, 2013 3:30 p.m. CDT

LOS ANGELES — Here’s a bit of good news for people who like bad news:

A German study suggests that people who are overly optimistic about their future actually faced greater risk of disability or death within 10 years than did those pessimists who expected their future to be worse.

The paper, which appears in the March edition of Psychology and Aging, examined health and welfare surveys from roughly 40,000 Germans between ages 18 and 96. The surveys were conducted every year from 1993 to 2003.

Survey respondents were asked to estimate their present and future life satisfaction on a scale of 0 to 10, among other questions.

Researchers found that young adults (age 18 to 39) routinely overestimated their future life satisfaction, while middle-aged adults (age 40 to 64) more accurately predicted how they would feel in the future.

Adults 65 and older however were far more prone to underestimate their future life satisfaction. Not only did they feel more satisfied than they thought they would, the older pessimists seemed to suffer a lower ratio of disability and death for the study period.

“We observed that being overly optimistic in predicting a better future than actually observed was associated with a greater risk of disability and a greater risk of mortality within the following decade,” wrote lead author Frieder R. Lang, a psychology professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.

Lang and colleagues hypothesized that people who were gloomy about their future may be more careful about their actions than people who anticipated a rosy future.

“Perceiving a dark future may foster positive evaluations of the actual self and may contribute to taking improved precautions,” authors wrote.

Surprisingly, respondents who enjoyed good health or income were associated with expecting a greater decline compared with those in poor health or who had low incomes.

Also, researchers said that higher income was related to a greater risk of disability.

Study authors noted that there were limitations to their conclusions. Illness, medical treatment and personal loss could also have driven health outcomes.

However, the researchers said a pattern was clear.

“We found that from early to late adulthood, individuals adapt their anticipations of future life satisfaction from optimistic, to accurate to pessimistic,” the authors concluded. “Pessimistic accuracy appears to be linked with preserved functional health and better chances to survive.”

 

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