Bad news for the relentlessly cheery Pollyannas among us: Grumpy old men (and women) may live longer. Or so says a new German study that suggests that pessimists live longer, healthier lives than those who are overly optimistic.
The new research, published online this month in the journal Psychology and Aging, finds that people who have low expectations for their future satisfaction actually have less disability and death than do those who overestimate their future happiness. In other words, Eeyore is likely to outlive Tigger.
But why would expecting the worst produce the best results? Maybe it’s because all that doom and gloom better prepares you for problems ahead. “Pessimism about the future may encourage people to live more carefully, taking health and safety precautions,” said lead author Frieder R. Lang, Ph.D., of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany.
The study was based on data from about 40,000 Germans ages 18 to 96 who completed annual surveys between 1993 and 2003. They were asked to rate how satisfied they were with their lives and to predict how satisfied they thought they would be in five years.
The oldest subjects (age 65 or older) were the most likely to underestimate their future happiness. These older pessimists not only felt more satisfied than they thought they would; they suffered less disability and death during the study period. Conversely, those in the study who overestimated their future satisfaction — and then were disappointed when it didn’t turn out that way — suffered more health consequences, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The study also found that young adults, ages 18 to 39, were most likely to overestimate their future satisfaction. Those who were middle-aged (ages 40 to 64) were most accurate in predicting their future feelings, while participants in the 65-plus group were the most pessimistic — 43 percent of them underestimated their happiness.
The research is surprising, given previous studies that show a positive attitude can improve health. But the researchers assure us they’re not completely discounting optimism. They manage to point out that it can “sometimes help people feel better when they are facing inevitable negative outcomes, such as terminal disease.”
Still, they conclude that expecting the worst might not be such a bad attitude to take — especially if it leads us to take actions “that can help improve our chances of a long healthy life.”
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