Pessimism May Exacerbate Your Risk for No. 1 Cause of Death

Pessimism may be a major risk factor for death from heart disease, study finds.

Posted Nov 17, 2016

Ekkasit Rakrotchit/Shutterstock
Source: Ekkasit Rakrotchit/Shutterstock

A new study has found that pessimism is correlated with a higher risk of death from coronary heart disease (CHD), which is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States. From a public health perspective, it's imperative that, as Americans, we avoid excessive pessimism in order to preserve our individual and collective heart health. 

The November 2016 report was published today in the open access journal BMC Public Health. This study—which involved 2,267 middle aged and older Finnish men and women—was conducted by researchers from the Department of Psychiatry at Päijät-Häme Central Hospital in Finland. This is the first study to examine CHD mortality and the correlation of optimism and pessimism as independent variables.

At the beginning of the longitudinal study, all subjects filled out the revised version of the Life Orientation Test (LOT-R). This is a questionnaire that includes six statements: three which indicate optimism and three which indicate pessimism. For example, "In uncertain times, I usually expect the best" v.s. "If something can go wrong for me, it will." Respondents were asked to indicate how well these statements described his or her attitudes.

From a scientific perspective, optimism and pessimism boil down to people's attitude about their future. Whether you see the glass as half-full or half-empty is generally a reflection of whether or not you expect a greater number of desirable or undesirable things to happen in the future.

How Would You Respond to These Six Questions?

  1. In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.
  2. If something can go wrong for me, it will.
  3. I'm always optimistic about my future.
  4. I hardly ever expect things to go my way.
  5. I rarely count on good things happening to me.
  6. Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad.

The six LOT-R questions above are a helpful tool for taking inventory of your personal levels of optimism vs. pessimism. If you are feeling pessimistic about the future, hopefully, these findings will serve as a call-to-action for you to readjust your explanatory style to protect your heart health and well-being.

The correlation between pessimism and death related to coronary heart disease remained even after adjusting for known physiological risk factors and socioeconomic differences. In the abstract of this study, the authors write,

“Those who died because of coronary heart disease were significantly more pessimistic at baseline than the others. This finding applies to both men and women. Optimism did not seem to have any connection with the risk of CHD-induced mortality . . . Pessimism seems to be a substantial risk factor for death from CHD.”

The researchers found that of the 121 men and women who died from CHD during the decade long study, many more were pessimistic at the beginning of the study than their counterparts who were still alive at the eleven year follow-up.

In fact, the highest quartile of pessimists had a 2.2-fold higher risk of dying from CHD than those in the lowest quartile. However, there was no difference between the groups in optimism, suggesting that pessimism alone mediates the effect on CHD mortality.

Sisu + Proactive Pragmatism = Sweet Spot Between Optimism and Pessimism

Sisu is a Finnish word which loosely means “having guts” and the determination to never, ever give up. Sisu is also synonymous with grit, bravery, resilience, and hardiness. The Finns (who fought off the Russians in two wars) consider Sisu to be the backbone of their national character. 

Someone with Sisu refuses to become a pessimist. Having Sisu is characterized by taking action while displaying courage and perseverance in the face of adversity. Sisu requires being intelligent about coming up with a game plan, strategizing, and sticking to a planned course of action despite demoralizing setbacks. 

The mother of my 9-year-old daughter hails from Finland. As Ironman triathletes, her mom and I competed internationally for many years. We reached countless finish lines by never letting go of the quintessence of Sisu. As parents, we encourage our daughter to participate regularly in sports as a way to nurture her innate Sisu...while also helping her learn how to find the midway between optimism and pessimism (which I view as pragmatism) through trial and error. 

Pragmatism is the ability to cope with situations sensibly and realistically in a way that is founded on practicality and avoids emotional impulsivity. In my opinion, the combination of Sisu and pragmatism is an effective way to counter the ability of pessimism to make you feel disempowered or paralyzed by fear

The spectrum between optimism and pessimism represents a continuum. As an athlete, you learn many lessons on the playing field that apply to life. For example, you learn the importance of never being unrealistically optimistic (aka a Pollyanna) and you learn how to overcome thoughts of self-doubt and pessimism during challenging sports training and competitions to achieve your goals

Through sports, anyone can master the skill of pinpointing a pragmatic sweet spot in which you stay cognitively nimble and quickly respond to each hurdle as it comes along. Just like a ‘little ole ant trying to move a rubber tree plant’ who refuses to give up... Via life experience, I've learned that you can ultimately reach the finish line and possibly win the race if you learn to substitute pessimism with proactive pragmatism and Sisu

The next time you are overwhelmed by pessimism about the future: Please take the bull by the horns and do your best to rally against becoming chronically pessimistic. I know it's not easy sometimes. But, remember the latest research shows that pessimism is associated with increased risk of death from heart disease.

Hopefully, the combination of regular physical activity, Sisu, and proactive pragmatism can serve as a winning formula that helps you combat pessimism in the days, months, and years ahead.