A negative outlook at times can help you manage anxiety and stay healthy
Listen up Pollyannas of the world: A dose of pessimism may do you good.
Experts say pessimism can at times be beneficial to a person's physical and mental well-being. Some studies have found that having a more negative outlook of the future may result in a longer and healthier life. Pessimism and optimism are opposite ends of a spectrum of personality traits, and people generally fall somewhere in between.
"All too often in the literature and in the public conversation, we want people to be more than 90% optimistic," said Dilip Jeste, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of California San Diego. "That's not good. It is much better to have a balanced perspective and have some pessimistic streak in your personality in order to succeed."
Still, it remains an optimist's world. The prevailing view in positive psychology—the scientific study of how to make people happier—is that optimism results in better health outcomes, physical and mental. This association has helped spawn a cottage industry in optimism books, seminars and conferences.
"Given that we are in an optimistic culture, in the workplace, for example, you don't want to be labeled as the person who's always negative," said Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College. "But I think there's some rising awareness that you need that perspective in group decision making."
Optimism and pessimism come in different types. Trait or dispositional optimism and pessimism is having a chronic tendency to hold positive or negative expectations about the future. (Think glass half full versus half empty.) Explanatory optimism or pessimism is a style of explaining why bad things happen. (Pessimists often blame themselves; optimists tend to blame external factors.)
Then there is defensive pessimism, a strategy often used to manage anxiety. These pessimists lower their expectations and think through all the possible negatives that could happen in order to avoid them. The opposite is called strategic optimism: When confronted with a potentially anxiety-provoking event, these people often distract themselves instead of dwelling on the event.
Researchers say there are costs and benefits to all personality traits. But many studies have shown that optimism, of the dispositional and explanatory kind, is more often associated with positive health outcomes. Defensive pessimists perform well in studies, as do strategic optimists. Experts note the studies are correlational, not causal, and in general what's best depends on the person and the situation.
A study published last year in the journal Psychology and Aging found that older people with pessimistic views of the future were more likely to live longer and healthier lives than those with a rosier outlook. The researchers used data from a nationally representative survey in Germany of about 11,000 people. Among other questions, people were asked how satisfied they were with their lives and how satisfied they thought they would be in five years.
When looking at respondents older than 65, a total of about 1,300 people, the researchers found that the likelihood of surviving or remaining healthy increased by about 10% for those who were more pessimistic, said lead author Frieder Lang, a professor of psychology and gerontology at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg.
"Those who are defensively pessimistic about their future may be more likely to invest in preparatory or precautionary measures, whereas we expect that optimists will not be thinking about those things," said Dr. Lang, who noted the study controlled for factors such as health and finances, but didn't prove causality.
Leslie Martin, co-author of the 2011 book "The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study," found similar results in a long-term study that followed 1,528 people over eight decades. Among other health-related findings, the study showed that the subjects who were identified as most optimistic as children were the ones who died the soonest.
"We were really curious about this finding that the more pessimistic kids—those who were in the lower quartile—were actually living longer lives," said Dr. Martin, a social and personality psychologist at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif. What they found was that the most optimistic kids ended up taking more risks, be it smoking, drinking or having riskier hobbies, she said.
Such findings run contrary to a body of evidence that suggests, on balance, the benefits of being optimistic outweigh any costs, said Suzanne Segerstrom, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky and author of "Breaking Murphy's Law," a 2006 book about optimism. Optimists "absolutely have an edge in general well-being, mental and physical," she said.
One reason it can be confusing to weigh optimism against pessimism is that the traits often depend on external circumstances. "If you're pessimistic in one way you may be optimistic in another way," Dr. Segerstrom said.
Dr. Jeste, of UC San Diego, believes in maintaining a balance of optimism and pessimism, and avoiding extremes. "One should be more optimistic than pessimistic but not 100% optimistic," said Dr. Jeste. "I don't know what the perfect balance is but maybe something like 70-30."
A study, published last year in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, evaluated the brain response of 16 older adults when processing fearful faces. People with greater optimism had reduced activity in the parts of the brain that process emotional stimuli. "Being less bothered by stresses can help in coping," said Dr. Jeste, who led the study. "On the other hand, a nonchalant attitude to dangers can leave the person poorly prepared to deal with a risky situation when it arises."
He noted that pessimism also can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. "If I say I'm going to fail an exam no matter what I do then I will be depressed and won't put any energy into it, and I may fail," said Dr. Jeste.
Optimism can be a disadvantage in stressful conditions. A 2011 study involving 250 couples in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that overly optimistic people coped worse with stress.
"I think that pessimism to the extent that it allows you to accurately assess what's happening in your life is important," said Erin O'Mara, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio and a co-author of the study.
Lisa Astor, a vice president at a Boston public-relations firm, says her pessimism works to her advantage. "Preparing for the worst is my life motto," said Ms. Astor who says she nevertheless doesn't have a negative temperament. At work, when Ms. Astor is about to pitch a new client, she goes through all the possible outcomes. "In any important situation I think about all of the 'what-ifs' and worst-case scenarios," the 35-year-old says.
Her friends tease her for always seeing the "glass half empty," she says. Still, they appreciate how well prepared she can be. If she's going to the beach, Ms. Astor says she is the one who brings the overstuffed bag prepared for every eventuality.