Can Foreseeing a Dark Future Result in Less Disability and Lower Likelihood of Death?

About a week ago, Debbie came back from her morning run and said she heard on the radio that a study had been published supporting the idea that pessimism is more conducive to physical health than optimism.

She went on to say that, based on the description of what was being called “pessimism”, it struck her as “anticipation”, which is a well-known successful way of coping with life. Anticipation means looking ahead to the future so that you can avoid being blind-sided by events.

There is abundant research showing that optimism is much more helpful than pessimism, e.g. this article. If there are circumstances in which pessimism beats optimism, we need to know about them.

In this post we will tell you about the results of our search for the details of this study and our interpretation of the results.

Please be patient; it will take a few paragraphs to explain how the study was done.

It was done on a representative sample of 10,000 Germans. This means that they had an unusually large sample and respondents were selected in a pattern that matched the population of their country. Participants were tested and retested for eleven years. Most studies are one-shot deals, so duration of the study is a plus.

They were asked at the beginning of the study and in each subsequent year to rate their current quality of life, and to predict the quality of life they expected five years in the future.

If they predicted less life satisfaction than actually occurred, they were categorized as pessimistic (a pretty good common sense measure of optimism versus pessimism).

If their actual life satisfaction was worse than they had predicted, they were deemed optimistic; their expectations were more positive than what really happened. If they accurately predicted their future life satisfaction, they were deemed realistic.

The study divided participants in age categories ranging from Young adults (18-39 years), Middle-aged adults (40-64 years), and Older adults (65+ years).

Their outcome measures, i.e. what the study sought to predict, was disability or death.

They found that “Older adults” who underestimated how satisfying their future lives would be had less disability or death than those who were optimistic or realistic in their predictions. However, this worked only for the older adults, and the people rated as pessimistic were only 2 to 3 percent less likely to be disabled or dead than realists or optimists. In addition, the older adult sample included 856 people, whereas the other age groups each included 3 to 4 thousand.


This study had an unusual measure of optimism versus pessimism. A much more tested one, which is a very good predictor of future health can be found here. It is free, and you can take it and score it yourself.

The years from 65 up are a period of rapid change, much like the years from birth to young adulthood. Older people routinely have parents, friends, relatives, etc. they have seen develop various illnesses and losing a range of capacities they once had, and also dying. A common lament of older people is that so many, or even all, of their friends have died. And many worry about observed loss of various cognitive function, e.g. “a senior moment”.

An older adult who is alert is likely to realize what is in their future, and prepare for it. That is anticipation. I think Debbie had it right.



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