Half-Empty or Half-Full? When Pessimism Can Be Life-Saving

How happy do you think you will be in five years?

We all make guesses about how our future will turn out and if we will be happy or not.   Whether we choose to be optimistic or pessimistic about the future largely depends on how we see ourselves, the people in our lives and the world in which we live.    It also depends on how realistic we are about future prospects or whether we have any significant health issues that might make a difference in life quality five or ten years up the line.  

Perhaps not surprisingly, age can make a significant difference in how we are likely to view the future.   Research has demonstrated that young adults are usually overly optimistic, i.e., the next few years are not likely to be as rosy as they predict.  Though overly optimistic views of the future can help protect against life’s problems while being pessimistic can help people cope with uncertainty,  how effective these strategies are will often depend on how well they have worked in the past.  On the other hand, older adults are usually more realistic about the future quality of their lives. As we grow  older and become less optimistic about the future, fears of declining health or reduced economic opportunities makes pessimism seem like a more sensible strategy.

But how does our perception of the future change over time?  And does being able to predict the future accurately help people cope better as they grow older?   An intriguing new study published in Psychology and Aging provides an in-depth look at the link between predictions of future satisfaction and how well future thinking can prepare people as they grow older.    Conducted by Frieder R. Lang of the German Institute of Economic Research and his colleagues, the study examined more than 11,000 German adults over an 11-year period.    All of the subjects were asked the same question, “How satisfied do you think you will be in five years?”  along with questions about their current life satisfaction, educational background, income, and medical history.   They were asked the same questions each year to test the accuracy of their predications and how they related to their actual life satisfaction.  

As previous research showed,  younger research participants were more likely to be optimistic in their predictions of the future while older participants were more likely to be pessimistic.   Only the middle-aged participants made predictions about their future that were reasonably accurate.   For older participants however, pessimism appears to be linked to poor health and low income.   When health and income were taken into account, older subjects gave accurate predictions about the future.     Even more surprising however was the positive relationship between pessimism and later disability or mortality.   In other words, being pessimistic about the future appeared to help older participants handle new medical problems as they developed.  

To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post. 

           

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