Avoiding Pessimism May Be More Important Than Being Optimistic

January 31, 1998

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- For years, people have been told about the power of positive thinking to improve health and well-being.

But new research suggests it may be even more important to avoid negative thinking.

A study of 224 middle-aged and older adults found that avoiding pessimism may be more important than embracing optimism in reducing anxiety and stress and improving reported health.

“When we examined optimism and pessimism separately, it turned out that pessimism had more of an influence on well-being,” said Susan Robinson-Whelen, who co-authored the study as a post-doctoral fellow in psychiatry at Ohio State University.

While previous studies have linked optimism to well-being, they generally considered optimism and pessimism to simple opposites.

“Researchers have generally lumped pessimism and optimism together, and attributed all the effect on well-being to optimism,” said Robert MacCallum, professor of psychology at Ohio State. “But we found that levels of optimism and pessimism may not always be strongly related. There’s good reason to consider them separately.”

“Just because a person doesn’t expect good things to happen in the future, researchers can’t assume they therefore expect bad things to happen,” Robinson-Whelen added.

Robinson-Whelen and MacCallum conducted the study with Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology, and Cheongtag Kim, a psychology graduate student, both at Ohio State. Robinson-Whelen is now a researcher at the Center for Excellence on Healthy Aging with Disabilities at the Houston VA Medical Center.

Their results were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study was a part of a larger project examining stress among adults who were caregivers for a family member with Alzheimer’s disease. About half of the participants in this study were caregivers, and half were not.

As part of the research, the participants were given a questionnaire that assessed evidence of both optimistic thinking and pessimistic thinking. One question that assessed optimistic thinking was “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.” A question that assessed pessimistic thinking was “If something can go wrong for me, it will.”

One year later, the participants were given questionnaires that examined a variety of well-being measures.

The results showed that those who scored high in pessimistic thinking were likely to report more subjective stress, anxiety and poorer overall health one year later. Optimistic thinking did not have as large an impact on the measures of well-being.

“It’s not that optimism doesn’t matter at all,” MacCallum said. “But pessimism has an impact above and beyond that of optimism.”

The study also found that caregivers were significantly less optimistic than non-caregivers and tended to be more pessimistic.

While these results may not seem surprising, they show that life events do have a significant impact on levels of optimism and pessimism, Robinson-Whelen said.

“Some researchers have argued that optimism is a stable personality trait, and that it isn’t affected by life events,” she said. “In other words, the argument was that optimistic people will remain optimistic, no matter what’s going on in their lives. However, these results suggest our environment does affect our overall outlook.”

This study also points out the importance of including a wide variety of people when developing psychological measures, Robinson-Whelen said. Earlier studies that found a strong relationship between levels of pessimism and optimism were generally done with young people.

But this study showed that, at least with older people, pessimism and optimism were not strongly related. This is consistent with developmental theories that suggest young people are more dualistic in their thinking than older adults, she said.

This study was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Ohio State University

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