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Half-Empty or Half-Full? When Pessimism Can Be Life-Saving

We all make guesses about our future and whether we will be happy or not.

How happy do you think you will be in five years?

We all make guesses about how our future will turn out and if we will be happy or not.   Whether we choose to be optimistic or pessimistic about the future largely depends on how we see ourselves, the people in our lives and the world in which we live.    It also depends on how realistic we are about future prospects or whether we have any significant health issues that might make a difference in life quality five or ten years up the line.  

Perhaps not surprisingly, age can make a significant difference in how we are likely to view the future.   Research has demonstrated that young adults are usually overly optimistic, i.e., the next few years are not likely to be as rosy as they predict.  Though overly optimistic views of the future can help protect against life’s problems while being pessimistic can help people cope with uncertainty,  how effective these strategies are will often depend on how well they have worked in the past.  On the other hand, older adults are usually more realistic about the future quality of their lives. As we grow  older and become less optimistic about the future, fears of declining health or reduced economic opportunities makes pessimism seem like a more sensible strategy.

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But how does our perception of the future change over time?  And does being able to predict the future accurately help people cope better as they grow older?   An intriguing new study published in Psychology and Aging provides an in-depth look at the link between predictions of future satisfaction and how well future thinking can prepare people as they grow older.    Conducted by Frieder R. Lang of the German Institute of Economic Research and his colleagues, the study examined more than 11,000 German adults over an 11-year period.    All of the subjects were asked the same question, “How satisfied do you think you will be in five years?”  along with questions about their current life satisfaction, educational background, income, and medical history.   They were asked the same questions each year to test the accuracy of their predications and how they related to their actual life satisfaction.  

As previous research showed,  younger research participants were more likely to be optimistic in their predictions of the future while older participants were more likely to be pessimistic.   Only the middle-aged participants made predictions about their future that were reasonably accurate.   For older participants however, pessimism appears to be linked to poor health and low income.   When health and income were taken into account, older subjects gave accurate predictions about the future.     Even more surprising however was the positive relationship between pessimism and later disability or mortality.   In other words, being pessimistic about the future appeared to help older participants handle new medical problems as they developed.    

 Lang and his fellow researchers also found that underestimating future life satisfaction was linked to better health and higher income as participants grew older.    Also, higher education was linked to greater optimism across the entire lifespan.   Even older people who were pleasantly surprised to find that their  pessimism about  the future was inaccurate still tended to be pessimistic in their new future expectations.     Perhaps the most surprising finding was that being overly optimistic about the future meant a greater risk of death or disability.    

But is there an actual health benefit in being too pessimistic for older adults?   According to the research study, that actually seems to be the case.    Basically, looking on the dark side means taking additional precautions to prevent future problems, whether through new health precautions, more frequent  medical checkups, or increasing life and health insurance coverage.    It also means strengthening emotional and physical resources to deal with the expected crises, wherever or whenever they occur.    

Among their conclusions, Lang and his colleagues point out that, “Becoming more pessimistic over time, when health and income are stable and good, may point to a flexible adaptation process in old age: When things are going well and resources prevail, expecting declines in the future may involve taking greater precautions.  Accepting or even foreseeing future loss potentials may serve to immunize the self against possible threats in the future and thus serve as a secondary control mechanism in terms of predictive control.”   

 To conclude, being young means lack of experience will keep you from forming a realistic impression of what the future will be like.   Having a rosy outlook on the future is easier for young people because they have relatively few health worries to complicate the picture.  It also allows them the mental resources to handle  things like student loans, mortgages, and establishing a good career.   As we grow older though, we reach a “turning point” where we become more realistic about the future.    With older people, recognizing that they are running out of time can lead to a pessimistic outlook on life.   Whether that pessimism is really justified or not, it becomes more important for older people to enjoy life now rather than worrying about what the future will bring. 

Growing older is something that everyone faces and the process definitely changes us, mentally as well as physically.   How we look at the future is going to change as our life changes and that outlook on the future is going to affect how we see the world.  As Lang and his colleagues demonstrate,  a little pessimism isn’t always  a bad thing.     

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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