Do Pessimists Live Longer?

Ahhhh, science.

I love reading new scientific studies, particularly ones that are related to happiness and health. You can learn so much useful, actionable information by staying on top of the latest research.

Unfortunately, it can be very easy to draw the wrong conclusions from new studies, particularly when you only read about the study from a mainstream media source.

So when I saw the Washington Post article alleging that optimists will die sooner than pessimists, I had to write this in order to clear up their misinformation. Oh, and here is the link to the paper itself.

The article claims that individuals with a more negative outlook on the future tend to live longer and healthier lives, despite the huge amounts of evidence suggesting that optimism is one of the major factors in improving longevity (I will discuss this in far more detail in a future post).

They back it up with some numbers:

“Each one-standard deviation increase in overestimating one’s future life satisfaction was related to an approximately 10% increase in risk of death.”

That’s a significant increase in risk of death! I’ll give them that much.

And if you check out the paper itself, the methodology seems legit, too.

Bad news for all you optimists out there, right?

Not so fast.

First of all, this study only showed correlation, not causation. But for a better headline, most media is willing to ignore this.

It is completely reasonable to think that there might be other factors at play here. It is not the least bit intuitive that pessimism would have any causative relationship with a longer and healthier life.

The authors give one suggestion: foreseeing a negative future might predispose individuals to take steps to fix it. So a pessimist might be more likely to get check ups, eat healthy, etc.

On the other hand, optimists might be naive or delusional. They have such a positive outlook that they can’t see the train wreck about to happen and are thus completely unprepared.

To me, this sounds like a completely reasonable hypothesis. As much as I recommend being optimistic in general, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to the point of delusion.

Here’s where the reporting of the study messes up big time: defining the variables.

I think that most people would define optimism as having an overall positive outlook about the future, and pessimism as having an overall negative outlook on the future.

However, this study defined optimism and pessimism by the inaccuracy of peoples’ predictions, and NOT the actual value of them.

The results of the study were that overestimating future life satisfaction (and not the overall expectation of that satisfaction) is correlated with poor health outcomes.

This is a very interesting result for sure, but it has nothing to do with optimism or pessimism as most of us think of the words.

If you found this at all interesting, I recommend you read the paper itself.

In the meantime, be wary of what you read in the news.


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