Let’s look at the science behind optimism. Specifically, let’s review the results of the Optimism-Pessimism Scale from a sampling of patients who had taken the MMPI Psychological Test between 1962 and 1965.
Being an optimist is both life-affirming, and healthier, in more ways than one. The results of the study suggested that having a pessimistic style, or a tendency of people to explain life events in a negative way, was significantly associated with an increased risk of an early death. Even when the researchers corrected the results for age and sex, and related factors, a higher pessimism scale score was associated with an increase in death (mortality).
Using Setbacks to Fuel Optimism
Dr. Martin Seligman, Ph.D., past president of the American Psychological Association, also studied the issues of optimism and how that influenced one’s life and performance. His theory was that those people were optimistic about life and achievement actually achieved more and kept moving forward.
After observing this happening in a number of people over several situations, he then went on to predict the athletes who would perform best and win medals at the Olympics. What happened is that his predictions did turn out to be true in all the competitors except for one. One of the swimmers actually finished a tenth of a second after the winner. The first person had been predicted to win because he was the most optimistic about how he approached life.
While some people thought Dr. Seligman might have been wrong, he pointed out that optimistic people never give up and that he expected that this “loss” would not stop the athlete in the next competition. What happened is that the athlete in the second and subsequent swimming competitions actually did win.
Dr. Seligman pointed out that optimistic people learn from their mistakes and take corrective actions to improve their performance. Pessimists, on the other hand, see a loss as a failure and then give up, believing negative things about themselves and their abilities.
We can learn from the optimist. They use setbacks as learning experiences that can help them enhance and improve their future behaviors and performance. The more we look on the positive optimistic side of situations, the better we are. The optimist might be upset over the loss but they do not make negative statements about themselves and do not give up. They just “try over and over again” just like the “Little Engine That Could.” If others “destroy our optimism” by their efforts to control, or through situations that “take control away” from us, then it is important to look for ways in which we can “re-assert” ourselves again!
The Consequences of Pessimism
These studies tend to add to the research on the “mind-body interaction” and the effects of the mind on one’s long-term health and functioning. The manner in which people attempt to understand or explain the causes of stressful situations, problems, life events, illness and injuries, can significantly affect their health and functioning. Further, the use of a pessimistic explanation, and our style of relating to others and the world, can significantly undermine one’s psychological and physical functioning and health.
There at least five ways by which pessimism could affect our mortality:
- Pessimists are passive and have more bad life events, as a result, than optimists.
- More bad life events are associated with shorter lives.
- Pessimists, believing that “nothing I do matters,” comply less well with medical advice, give up sooner when facing setbacks and problems, take fewer preventive matters, and use poorer health habits like continuing to smoke or drink excessively.
- Pessimists become depressed at a markedly higher rate than optimists do, and depression is associated with mortality.
- The immune system of pessimists functions less adequately than that of optimists because their belief system seems to “shut down the mind and body functioning.”
Pessimism is identifiable early in life and it is changeable! However, you have to make a decision to think and act differently than you have learned up to this point in your life. Acting “as if” is critical if you are to make this permanent shift in your thinking.