More MS news articles for January 2000

Positive thinkers outlive pessimists, research suggests

Source: Los Angeles Times

Published: 1/9/2000 Author: Terence Monmaney

Now that the future is here, how fitting that researchers are finally getting a grip on optimism, the curious human habit of expecting good things to happen, often in defiance of reality. Dozens of recent studies show that optimists do better than pessimists in work, school and sports, suffer less depression, achieve more goals, respond better to stress, wage more effective battles against disease and, yes, live longer.

The popularity of optimism research has convinced some scholars that psychology should focus less on misery and more on why things go right.

"Social science now finds itself in almost total darkness about the qualities that make life most worth living," said Dr. Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and past president of the American Psychological Association, in a 1998 speech.

Over the last three decades, he said, citing another scholar's spadework, there were 46,000 papers in the psychology literature on depression - and just 400 on joy. But 21st-century psychology, he predicted, "will become a science of human strength and of personal fulfillment."

Indeed, the psychological association's flagship journal starts the year with a special issue co-edited by Dr. Seligman and devoted to optimism and "positive psychology" - an idea, perhaps surprisingly, that has generated controversy.

Perhaps no research finding quite lifts the spirits like the observation that optimists live longer than pessimists. One reason may be that optimists do a better job of staying out of harm's way. So concluded a recent study drawing on records from a project begun eight decades ago involving 1,800 boys and girls in California.

By the 1990s, about half of the men and a third of the women in the study had died. Those who gave optimistic answers to essay questions when they were young lived an average of two years longer than did their pessimistic counterparts.

Pessimistic people appeared more prone to accidents and violence, including car wrecks, household mishaps, even homicide.

"From what I'm able to figure out, pessimistic people are in bad moods," said the lead author of the 1998 study, psychologist Dr. Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan.

"And when you're in a bad mood, you're more likely to do risky things," because you're distracted or downright reckless.

Other evidence that optimists live longer has been gathered by UCLA psychologist Dr. Shelley Taylor and co-workers, who studied 78 men with AIDS beginning in the late 1980s.

Those who indicated that they had a realistic view of their disease's course died an average of nine months sooner than those who were more optimistic about postponing the end. And the researchers say they ruled out other reasons for the optimists' longer lives, such as less severe illness to begin with.

Dr. Taylor argues that an optimistic frame of mind actually modulates the nervous system in a way that bolsters immune-system defenses.

It might seem contrary to good sense that people benefit from unfounded optimism. After all, distinguishing between reality and illusion is a touchstone of sanity.

But some social scientists have generated controversy by reporting evidence for what is probably the central paradox of positive thinking: Clinging to the belief in a positive future against reasonable odds sometimes makes it happen.

Naturally, that may often occur just because over-optimists keep trying - a variation on the old saw that quitters never win. But there appears to be more to it.

For instance, in a report published last year about men infected with the AIDS virus, Dr. Taylor and co-workers found that the optimists had remained symptom-free longer than had the pessimists, whose assessment of their medical condition was actually more in line with clinical data.

Dr. Taylor, author of the 1989 book Positive Illusions, said researchers know little about how such an "optimistic bias" might help the body's defenses. The key, she said, is that such unrealism "isn't necessarily bad. It can be wonderful."

This view has its critics. A false sense of security can be dangerous when it comes to taking physical risks, says Dr. Neil Weinstein, a psychologist at Rutgers University.

Epidemics of sexually transmitted diseases, for example, are fueled in part by people who make overly optimistic assumptions about their sexual partners.

"You can think of many instances in which people's underestimation of risk can get them into serious trouble," Dr. Weinstein said.

But numerous studies show that optimists, far from protecting their fragile vision of the world, confront trouble head-on.

In a 1993 study of women who had recently been given the diagnosis of breast cancer, the women with an optimistic disposition were more likely to acknowledge the seriousness of the disease. They experienced less distress and took more active steps to cope with it.

"Pessimism was associated with denial and a giving-up response," said Dr. Charles Carver of the University of Miami, who conducted the study with Michael Scheier of Carnegie Mellon University and others.

"Optimism was associated with positively reframing the situation, with women believing, 'This is not going to go away, so let me make the best of it I can,' " Dr. Carver said.

Because experts believe that no less than half of one's optimistic tendency is nurtured, research probes its roots in childhood experience.

A soon-to-be-published study co-written by Vanderbilt University psychologist Dr. Judy Garber found that young adolescents often share their mothers' outlook, evidently because they learn her style of interpreting events, especially negative ones.

Children with what is known as a pessimistic explanatory style - they blame errors on deep personal flaws and dismiss triumphs as lucky breaks - were more likely to have been told their mistakes were caused by overarching deficiencies in their makeup.

"If parents are negative, critical, blaming, then the child is going to learn that's how to explain things in the world," Dr. Garber said.

At the same time, she and other researchers have clearly shown that reality also matters. Children who endure hardship and tragedy, from sickness to divorcing parents to a death in the family, are also prone to pessimistic thinking.

If Dr. Seligman and others are correct, the consequences of pessimistic thinking in childhood may be broader than is usually acknowledged. They are studying the origins of optimism and pessimism with an eye toward reducing what some have called the "epidemic of depression" among the young.

It remains to be seen, however, whether behavior experts will heed Dr. Seligman's call for a "positive" psychology dedicated to better understanding and even encouragement of virtues like altruism, wisdom, integrity and leadership.