A New Study Links Pessimism to Earlier Death

How can you change your outlook and live longer?

Posted Aug 02, 2020

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash
How you see it can affect how long you live.
Source: Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” —Winston Churchill

Some of us see the world as a glass half empty and others, a glass half full. What about you? If you’re a card-carrying pessimist, chances are that during these extraordinary times you’re having more difficulty seeing the upside of this downside situation. If so, you can ask if you’re freely choosing your perspective or if you're a prisoner of circumstances? We can’t always change what happens to us, but we can always change our perspective. And our lives might just depend on it. Literally.

New Research Shows a Pessimistic Outlook Can Be Deadly

A study published on July 28, 2020 from the Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia has shown that your perspective can influence how long you live. The study examined data from 3,000 participants on whether they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements such as, I’m always optimistic about my future or negative statements such as, If something can go wrong for me, it will. They found that people who are strongly pessimistic about the future are at greater risk of dying — on average, two years earlier — than those who are not pessimists, but contrary to previous studies, being an optimist didn’t extend life expectancy.

The key feature of these results is that the researchers employed two separate scales to measure pessimism and optimism and their association with the causes of death. In contrast, most previous studies put optimism and pessimism on one scale which resulted in people who received low scores on the pessimism being classed as optimists, which might not always be an accurate reflection of people’s outlooks, according to the researchers, because optimism and pessimism are not direct opposites.

Previous research also has shown that pessimism is more deadly than optimism. A study of 2,800 heart patients in the Journal Archives of Internal Medicine reported that those who were optimistic about their heart disease were more likely to live 15 years longer than those with a pessimistic outlook. Heart patients pessimistic about their condition were 30% more likely to die during the study period. And a 2019 Boston University study tracked 69,744 women for 10 years and 1,429 men for 30 years. The researchers reported that the most optimistic men and women demonstrated on average an 11-to-15% longer lifespan and had far greater odds of reaching age 85, compared to the least optimistic group. Other studies show that optimists adopt healthier habits, too. They have a lower stress level and a more stable cardiovascular system than average, and a stronger immune system. Optimists are happier, experience less stress, have fewer health complaints, and healthier relationships. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn and health psychologist Elissa Epel researched the destructive thoughts that damage your telomeres, the protective tips that reside at the end of chromosomes, and identified pessimism as one of 5 types of toxic thought patterns that shorten telomeres—an indicator of a truncated life span.

Changing Your Outlook

Of course, the implications of this new study are to become more mindful of your outlook and to learn to look at the roses instead of the thorns. When you ruminate and over-focus on the difficulty, what goes wrong, who hurt you, or how disappointed you are, it constricts possibilities. You don’t have to be a natural-born optimist to cultivate a positive outlook, though. With practice, you realize you have a choice of how to view the slings and arrows life delivers, simply by choosing your outlook. Optimism expands your perspective and unlocks personal resources for you to see the potential and opportunity embedded in hardship.

When your focus is narrow (like the zoom lens of a camera), you build up blind spots of negativity without realizing it. The key to widening your mental scope is to replace your “zoom lens” with a “wide-angle lens” and think about the big picture. Known as broaden-and-build, research by Barbara Frederickson at the University of North Carolina, shows that an enlarged perspective allows you to see more of life's opportunities that your zoom lens clouds out and to have more positive emotions and gratitude for the many joys in life. Scientists believe this positive outlook creates a different biochemical response in optimists versus pessimists that contributes to longevity. If you focus on the upside of a downside situation and the possibilities nested in the problem, you’re empowered to surmount obstacles and find peace of mind.

References

Blackburn, E., & Epel, E. (2017). The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier and Longer. London: Hachette Group.

Lee, L. O., et al. (2019). Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116 (37), 18357-18362.

Whitfield, J. B., et al. (2020). Pessimism is associated with greater all-cause and cardiovascular mortality, but optimism is not protective, Scientific Reports, 10, 12609. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-69388-y