Optimism May Not Save You, but Pessimism Is Pernicious

Pessimism is linked to increased death risk; however, optimism isn't protective.

Posted Jul 28, 2020

 Derek Robinson/Pixabay
Do you tend to see the proverbial glass as half-full or half-empty?
Source: Derek Robinson/Pixabay

Occasionally, a new scientific study comes along with a head-scratching title that, at first glance, reads like a brain-teaser and seems to present a paradoxical conundrum. Such is the case with a recent paper, "Pessimism Is Associated With Greater All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality, but Optimism Is Not Protective," by researchers from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) in Australia. This paper (Whitfield et al. 2020) was published on July 28 in the journal Scientific Reports.

As the title infers, the researchers found that people who are extremely pessimistic about the future based on scores from the Life Orientation Test (LOT) were at greater risk of dying prematurely than their less pessimistic peers. However, what makes this optimism/pessimism study seem like a catch-22 is that being extremely optimistic didn't appear to have a positive or negative impact on someone's risk of dying at a young age. Notably, the researchers did not find an association between higher optimism scores and increased life expectancy.

"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," first author John Whitfield said in a news release. "Optimism scores, on the other hand, did not show a significant relationship with death, either positive or negative."

The key to this riddle seems to be that, contrary to popular belief, pessimism and optimism are not polar opposites but rather represent two separate and distinct character traits. "Optimism and pessimism are not direct opposites," Whitfield said. Therefore, the researchers used two separate scales to measure pessimism and optimism in relation to all-cause mortality.

In their paper, the authors elaborate on the distinction between optimism and pessimism:

"Many of these epidemiological studies measured the traits of optimism and pessimism using the Life Orientation Test (Sheier & Carver, 1985). This measures outcome expectancies by recording agreement or disagreement with optimistic and pessimistic statements. The originators of this instrument (Scheier & Carver, 2018) view optimism/pessimism as an important and stable dimension of personality correlated with but distinguishable from hopelessness, depression, self-esteem, and locus of control. Importantly from our perspective, they also comment that "Optimism and pessimism may not anchor the two ends of one dimension. Rather, they may reflect two related, but separate, dimensions. However, the vast majority of existing research has treated optimism and pessimism as bipolar in nature."

Another recent UK-based study (De Meza & Dawson, 2020) on optimism, pessimism, and realism found that in the long run, realists (who are neither optimists or pessimists) tend to have the highest sense of subjective well-being (SWB) and happiness based on self-reported life satisfaction and psychological distress questionnaires.

Coincidentally, this optimism/pessimism study also has a title that, at first glance, reads like a riddle: "Neither an Optimist Nor a Pessimist Be: Mistaken Expectations Lower Well-Being." These findings by David de Meza and Chris Dawson were published on July 6 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. (See "One More Reason to Rethink the Power of Positive Thinking")

Interestingly, Whitfield and colleagues found that for both optimists and pessimists, their degree of optimism or pessimism tended to increase with age. "We can only speculate as to why both optimism and pessimism scores are higher in the older participants in this study," the authors write. "It is possible that older people have come to a more definite conclusion about their expectations from life, whether for good or ill, and this is reflected in higher scores."

According to Whitfield, "[these] research findings raise questions about the practical health benefits of training people out of pessimism." But the million-dollar question remains: Can people learn to be less pessimistic? Anecdotally, I know that learning to "expect nothing" and "live frugally on surprise" helped me become more of a realist who isn't excessively pessimistic or a Pollyanna. 

"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," Whitfield concluded. 


John B. Whitfield, Gu Zhu, J. George Landers & Nicholas G. Martin. "Pessimism Is Associated With Greater All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality, but Optimism Is Not Protective." Scientific Reports (First published: July 28, 2020) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-69388-y 

David de Meza and Chris Dawson. "Neither an Optimist Nor a Pessimist Be: Mistaken Expectations Lower Well-Being." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (First published online: July 06, 2020) DOI: 10.1177/0146167220934577