Optimism And Pessimism Play Different Roles In Preventing Depression At Different Ages, Says Study

August 18, 1998

Elderly Optimists At Higher Risk For Depression After Negative Life Event

WASHINGTON - Up until now, research has shown that people who are pessimistic are more vulnerable to depression. But according to new research, older people are less vulnerable to depression the more pessimistic and realistic they are about life events. This finding will be presented at the 106th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco.

Researcher Derek M. Isaacowitz, M.A., and psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a one-year study of 71 older adults (64-94 years of age) who were not in an assisted living situation to determine whether pessimism heightens their risk for depression. To find out whether a person explained uncontrollable negative life events in a pessimistic or optimistic style, the participants were asked to explain 12 vignettes that dealt with either positive or negative interpersonal issues.

A person with a pessimistic style explains negative life events as if the event happened because of internal reasons and he or she has no control over the outcome. A person with an optimistic style explains negative life events as if the event happened for external reasons, is a temporary setback and was due to causes that he or she can control.

After it was determined which explanatory style (pessimistic or optimistic) they used to interpret their life events, the participants completed questionnaires that measured their depressive mood and the number of negative life events they had experienced. At six months, 51 of the participants responded and a year later, 45 of the participants responded to the questionnaire.

In contrast with the last 20 years of research that shows that a pessimistic style of thinking in children and young adults makes them more vulnerable to developing depressive symptoms, Mr. Isaacowitz and Dr. Seligman found the opposite to be true with older people. "At both six-month and one-year follow-ups, the optimistic participants who had experienced negative life events reported the highest levels of depressive symptoms. In contrast, the optimistic participants who had not experienced a negative life event reported very low levels of depressive symptoms. The pessimistic participants tended to experience intermediate levels of depressive symptoms regardless of their life events."

"We believe that what makes people vulnerable to depression at one stage in their life can change in a later stage of life," say the authors. "The nature of life events (and their causes) change as people get older. For example, a college student who flunks a midterm knows that there will be another exam soon and will likely do better. The negative event and its consequences are rather temporary and have room for improvement so an optimistic perspective would be healthier and more realistic."

On the other hand, when an older person experiences the death of a friend, a more common and permanent event, a pessimistic reaction based on a realistic acceptance of end-of-life issues is appropriate. Being optimistic in this situation would be unrealistic and maladaptive, according to the authors.

"Teaching optimism to older adults would be a terribly inappropriate way to prevent depression," said Isaacowitz. "Promoting realistic assessment of one's life situation and teaching older adults to know that some negative life events with permanent causes and consequences will take place would be a more appropriate strategy."

Presentation:"Prevention of Depression in Older Adults: Theory, Methodology and Pitfalls," by Derek Isaacowitz, M.A., and Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, Session 5030, 9:00 AM, August 18, 1998, Moscone Center - South Building, Room 305

(Full Text available from the APA Public Affairs Office)

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

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American Psychological Association

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