Want a longer, happier life? Embrace pessimism, study says
By Sarah Boesveld, National Post, February 28, 2013 A growing body of research has credited the power of positive thinking for contributing to good health and a longer, happier life. But a new study out of Germany suggests people who are pessimistic about their futures — specifically older people — may find greater life satisfaction down the road than their more optimistic peers.
“The optimists are those who basically close their eyes, shut their eyes and don’t really want to know about the truth” about the inevitable costs of aging and death, he said. “That’s how we interpreted this finding — that basically these things [pessimistic expectations] really help people to be aware that they need to be cautious.”
The longitudinal study, published this month in the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology and Aging, set out to discover how anticipations about future life satisfaction change over time.
More than two-thirds of older Germans, aged 65 to 96, who thought life would only get worse actually had better health outcomes, said lead study author Frieder R. Lang, a professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and the German Institute for Economic Research.
“If you really think about the future in five years, understanding that although things are fine right now they might get worse, this seems to have a positive effect on lower disability risks and lower mortality risks,” he said in an interview Wednesday from Germany.
A pessimistic future forecast is often the more realistic one, he said. Older people, after all, see a narrowing future with physical and mental breakdown as well as death on the horizon. As such, thinking things will probably be bad could motivate people to take advantage of more social services, for example, or make investments that will ease the aging process, he said.
Expecting a less than bright future may even enhance “predictive control,” the study authors write.
The researchers used data collected by the national German Socio-Economic Panel, an annual private households survey of about 40,000 people aged 18 to 96. Respondents, interviewed mostly in person between 1993 and 2003, were asked to rate how satisfied they were with their lives and how satisfied they thought they might be in five years.
Grouping the answers from respondents by age — 18 to 39 were deemed young, 40 to 64 middle aged and 65 to 96 older — researchers saw big differences and changes over time. Younger people had greater life satisfaction and expected to be more satisfied in the future, while middle-aged respondents rated their future life satisfaction about the same as at present — a more realistic bent.
Most older adults — about 43% — underestimated future life satisfaction, 25% made accurate forecasts and 32% overestimated future life satisfaction.
“When holding health and income resources statistically constant, older adults make more accurate forecasts of their future life satisfaction,” the authors write.
While the findings may appear to fly in the face of positive psychology, it actually jives very well with it, Mr. Lang said.
“We think this is very consistent with our findings because five years later you find out that five years earlier you were a little too pessimistic and you are positive again,” he said. “Things may have gotten worse, but then you learn to understand how to interpret them positively. But then if you think about the next five years, things may not stay as good as they are today and so you keep struggling for the good things to keep up but you expect things could get worse.”
Wary that the findings not be misinterpreted, he added this: “There are already a lot of findings that being positive is actually positive,” he said. “In our study, we only add to it that being positive right now may not inform us well about the effects of how you think about the future.”
Maybe all those nasty jokes about angry old men, "grumpy old men" were more about living longer than about narcissism and irrelevance after all!