Health experts have long touted the benefits of ‘looking on the bright side of life’ as a key to leading a long and happy life. In theory, this sounds like sound advice, but in reality, the events of 2020 continue to take an unprecedented toll on our emotional and physical wellbeing.
But just how worried should we be about the impact of optimism and pessimism on our long-term health?
Dr John Whitfield is a researcher in QIMR Berghofer’s Genetic Epidemiology Group and the lead author of a recent study that found people who are strongly pessimistic about the future are at greater risk of dying earlier than those who are not pessimists.
Study participants who scored higher on pessimism in a questionnaire were likely to die on average two years earlier than those with low scores. However, in a surprising finding, Dr Whitfield said being an optimist did not extend life expectancy. ‘Optimism scores did not show a significant relationship with death, either positive or negative,’ Dr Whitfield said.
The researchers used data collected from almost 3 000 participants, who completed the Life Orientation Test. The participants were invited to agree or disagree with a number of positive and negative statements as part of a broader questionnaire that looked at the health of Australians aged over 50 between 1993 and 1995.
In October 2017, their details were then crosschecked with the Australian National Death Index, revealing more than 1000 participants had died and their cause of death.
‘We found people who were strongly pessimistic about the future were more likely to die earlier from cardiovascular diseases and other causes of death, but not from cancer,’ Dr Whitfield said.
Previous studies have shown a correlation between optimism and pessimism and specific diseases such as cardiovascular disease or stroke, however Dr Whitfield explained most previous studies also put optimism and pessimism on one scale, which is not always an accurate reflection of people’s outlooks.
‘Optimism and pessimism are not direct opposites,’ Dr Whitfield said.
‘The key feature of our results is that we used two separate scales to measure pessimism and optimism and their association with all causes of death.’
‘That is how we discovered that while strong pessimism was linked with earlier death, those who scored highly on the optimism scale did not have a greater than average life expectancy.’
Some other important findings from the study revealed less than 9% of respondents identified as being strongly pessimistic; there were no significant differences in optimism or pessimism between men and women; on average, an individual’s level of either optimism or pessimism increased with age; and depression did not appear to account for the association between pessimism and mortality.
‘Understanding that our long-term health can be influenced by whether we’re a cup-half-full or cup-half empty kind of person might be the prompt we need to try to change the way we face the world, and try to reduce negativity, even in really difficult circumstances.’
Seeing the light
It’s not always easy to see the bright side of life. If you feel your negative/positive balance is off, try these techniques to reset your attitude and help you approach challenges in a different way.
Turn off the news
The news concentrates on the bad things happening in the world, which can make you feel hopeless. Read a good book instead.
Create some artwork or brighten your environment with something colourful you’ll look at every day.
Meet with positive friends
Positive friends can help you see the world in a different light and think of solutions to your problems that you otherwise wouldn’t have thought of.
Dr John Whitfield