A pessimistic person may end up pleasantly surprised
A positive outlook has been hailed as one of the most important things for maintaining health, but new research published by the American Psychological Association has found that when older people have lower expectations for their futures they tend to live longer and healthier lives than those who look to the future with rosy-coloured glasses.
Researchers from the University of Erlangen-Nuremburg, Germany, looked at data from a period of ten years from around 40,000 people aged between 18 and 90. They split the results up into different age categories and then assessed interviews that had been done with all the participants about their overall satisfaction with their lives and their predictions of happiness for the future. These interviews were repeated regularly, so the researchers were able to compare participants’ predictions with their actual life satisfaction over time.
Five years after the first interviews were undertaken, 43% of study participants aged 65 years and older had underestimated their future life satisfaction; 25% had estimated correctly; and 32% had overestimated.
When the researchers compared these groups with how much their life satisfaction and improved or decreased over the five-year period, they found that overestimating future life satisfaction was linked to a 9.5% increase in reports of disabilities and a 10% increase risk of death.
The study authors point out that unrealistic optimism can also sometimes help – if a person is facing an inevitable negative outcome, it can improve general feelings of life satisfaction. But, they say, whether a person gains from being negative, accurate or pessimistic may be dependent on their age and available resources.
A young person, for example, who has a very negative outlook on life may not strive to achieve his or her goals and as they have fewer resources life satisfaction is likely to be far lower; an older person who has a more pessimistic outlook towards the future may be pleasantly surprised to find their health hasn’t deteriorated so dramatically or that they are still able to enjoy hobbies they thought they might have to give up.
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