Positive Thinking May Hinder Your Health

Your mother has always told you to look on the bright side. But now, researchers at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany have discovered that having a dimmer outlook on the future may actually be better for your health.

The study team found that older folks with lower expectations about what is to come were more likely to make decisions that lead to having a longer life than their more optimistic counterparts. These findings, published online in the American Psychological Association's journal, Psychology and Aging, may shed new light on the relationship between attitude and health.

Aging, Attitude, and Your Health

"As aging researchers, we are eager to improve our understanding of how personal future outlooks across adulthood may influence the course and conduct of a healthy and good life," says lead author Frieder R. Lang, PhD, who is director of the Institute of Psychogerontology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.

Lang and his colleagues reviewed data from an annual national survey conducted in Germany of 40,000 people between the ages of 18 to 96. The respondents were asked about their current level of satisfaction in life, as well as how satisfied they expected to be in five years.

"In our very unique longitudinal data set, we were able to check whether the respondents' expectations of future life satisfaction actually turned out to be true after five years," says Lang. "And we could do annual reality checks of future forecasts for 6 years every year."

What they found is that older people typically had lower expectations for their futures and as such, were more apt to make better decisions impacting their health and wellbeing, leading to improved mortality. This shows an unexpected link between pessimism and health in seniors.

Studying the Effects of Negative Thinking

The findings surprised the researchers. "We had not expected older people to underestimate their future life satisfaction-i.e, to be more pessimistic-as research typically suggests that older adults are positive in their thinking," Lang says. This may be one way of dealing with the challenges of old age. He also believes that having such lower expectations may influence people's actions to live more cautiously.

"One speculation we have is that expecting things to become worse than they actually turn out to be may a good way to protect oneself against the possible negative effects of age-related changes," Lang says. Another explanation may be that older adults who are pessimistic may invest more to prevent their negative expectations from becoming true.

The researchers were also surprised to find a relationship between higher income and lower expectations for the future. Lang hypothesizes that it could be that people with more money may be more worried because they have more to lose.

What These Findings Mean for You

If you're concerned that these findings about the positive effects of negative thinking mean you need to be a pessimist in order to have a long, healthy life, Lang says not to worry too much. He points to many other studies that have found that positive thinking is good for health and says that his research actually doesn't refute the idea. In fact, he believes thinking positively about the present can be good. But he also stresses that his study findings can serve as a reminder not to take things for granted, since life becomes more challenging as you age. A positive attitude may not always help you prepare. And the old stand-bys for living a long, healthy life-watching your weight, engaging in regular exercise, drinking in moderation and avoiding reckless behavior—still, well, stand.

Frieder R. Lang, PhD, reviewed this article.




Lang, Frieder R., PhD, Full Professor of Psychology and Gerontology, Director Institute of Psychogerontology, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. Email interview, 13 March 2013. 

Lang, Frieder R. et al. "Forecasting Life Satisfaction Across Adulthood: Benefits of Seeing a Dark Future?" Psychology and Aging, 18 Feb. 2013 Online. Web. 20 March 2013.