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How Pessimism Can Impact Your Health

Last week, a study led by researchers in Finland on the health and wellbeing of older people in the country found that pessimism "seems to be a substantial risk factor for death" from heart disease. We talked with a psychology professor about the...

by Kimberly Lawson
Nov 21 2016, 9:48pm

Photo by BONNINSTUDIO via Stocksy

If President-elect Trump's team of far-right cabinet picks have you looking at the world through a half-glass empty lens, you may want to consider the results of this new study out of Finland. According to research published last week in BMC Public Health, pessimism seems to be "a substantial risk factor for death" from coronary heart disease (CHD). But, interestingly, the study's authors also found that optimists were not necessarily better off.

Researchers started off by looking at the survey results of a 2002 study aiming to discover future ways to improve the health and wellbeing of older people living in Finland. In it, almost 3,000 people between the ages of 52 and 76 shared information about their socioeconomic status, psychosocial background, health, and lifestyle. They were also asked to share how optimistic or pessimistic they were by rating statements like "I hardly ever expect things to go my way" and "In uncertain times, I usually expect the best" on the Life Orientation Test.

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Eleven years later, the current study's authors checked in on 2,267 of those original participants, including 121 people who had died from CHD since the initial study. Researchers calculated a general cardiovascular disease risk score for each person, adjusting for well-known risk factors, and found that those who'd died "had been significantly more pessimistic at baseline than the subjects who were still alive." In fact, the study's authors write, "Those who were in the highest quartile of pessimism had nearly a 2.2-fold higher adjusted odds ratio for death from CHD during the 11-year follow-up period when compared to those in the lowest quartile of pessimism."

Therefore, it's reasonable to assume that those who are more optimistic might fare better when it comes to cardiovascular health. But actually, the study found optimism had no influence over mortality rates.

"Although we might not be able to say, 'Be optimistic, it's going to save you,'" Suzanne Steinbaum, director of Women's Heart Health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told UPI after reading the study, "what we can say is that pessimism really creates a stressful environment in your body and that leads to heart disease."

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The study's authors conclude, "Assessing optimism and pessimism as separate entities improves the prognostic values of the connection between these personality traits and coronary heart disease. The level of pessimism can be measured easily and non-invasively and it might be a very useful tool together with the other known risk factors to determine the risk of CHD-induced mortality." While the study also found a link between pessimism and death from coronary heart disease, it didn't claim a cause and effect.

Of course, the study focused on the group of people with CHD and not the general population. Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College who studies optimism and pessimism, says that being a pessimist isn't necessarily a bad thing for most people. "The most important influences of optimism and pessimism are on people's motivation," she tells Broadly. "Severe pessimism can decrease motivation by leading people to believe that there is no point to their efforts. But that isn't inevitable, and it can also happen that optimism leads to overconfidence or complacency, and thus lack of action/effort, and failure to prepare for negative possibilities."

Norem suggests those who are feeling a little sour about the future since Trump's election may be just fine—physically—if they channel that energy productively. "When [pessimism] leads to depression, hopelessness, fatalism, and those feelings lead to giving up, we're likely to see negative effects on health," she explains. "The 'sourness' that makes us anxious and angry and leads us to seek out others for help and to support others, and then to work, individually and collectively, for change, is unlikely to have a negative health impact."

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