People who are pessimistic about the future may well have a right to be, as new research indicates they’re likely to die earlier than their more optimistic counterparts.
A study from QIMR Berghofer's Genetic Epidemiology group in Queensland, Australia, found that participants who scored higher on pessimism died on average two years earlier than those who scored low.
That death rate isn’t merely speculative either. Researchers collected data on pessimism from a questionnaire of almost 3,000 participants aged over 50 from between 1993 and 1995, then cross checked those details with the Australian National Death Index in October 2017 to find out how many people had died.
They also looked at the causes of those deaths, and found that the pessimists appeared more predisposed to life-threatening diseases. Optimism, meanwhile, was found to neither decrease nor increase an individual’s life expectancy.
“We found people who were strongly pessimistic about the future were more likely to die earlier from cardiovascular diseases and other causes of death, but not from cancer,” said Dr John Whitfield, the lead researcher on the study. “Optimism scores on the other hand did not show a significant relationship with death, either positive or negative.
Dr Whitfield noted that “depression did not appear to account for the association between pessimism and mortality.”
Overall, less than nine percent of respondents in the study identified as strongly pessimistic. An individual’s level of either optimism or pessimism typically increased with age, and there did not appear to be any significant differences between men and women.
This isn’t the first time pessimism has been linked to mortality. Previous studies have shown a correlation between optimism and pessimism and the likelihood that individuals will be afflicted by certain diseases such as cardiovascular disease or stroke. Most of those studies, however, framed optimism and pessimism as binaries: automatically classifying those who scored low on pessimism as optimists. As Dr Whitfield points out, however, “optimism and pessimism are not direct opposites.”
“The key feature of our results is that we used two separate scales to measure pessimism and optimism and their association with all causes of death,” he said. “That is how we discovered that while strong pessimism was linked with earlier death, those who scored highly on the optimism scale did not have a greater than average life expectancy.
Dr Whitfield went on to suggest that these new research findings could underscore the practical health benefits of teaching people to try and look on the bright side, and steer clear of pessimistic attitudes as much as possible.
“Understanding that our long term health can be influenced by whether we’re a cup-half-full or cup-half-empty kind of person might be the prompt we need to try to change the way we face the world, and try to reduce negativity, even in really difficult circumstances.”