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Wipe that smile off your face, optimists: Science says you’ll die sooner

Perfectly done, Sad Keanu.

Has the sequester got you down? Worried that the next few years will be gloomier than you'd like? Well, good news, sad pessimist! New research in the journal Psychology and Aging finds individuals with a more negative outlook on the future tend to live longer — and healthier — lives.

The study relied on the national German Socioeconomic Panel, a cross-cut of thousands of citizens across the country. A team of researchers used a sample of 11,131 people, who had, every year, provided the database with their current level of happiness. They also predicted how happy they would be five years in the future.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, young people (ages 18 to 39) tended to be the most likely to overestimate how happy they would be five years out in the future, by about a half-point on this 10-point scale.

Adults over 65, conversely, tended to predict that their life would be more miserable five years out than whatever actually happened. To get more specific, they undershot their own happiness by, on average, two-thirds of a point on the 10-point scale.

This isn't to say that all seniors are about doom and gloom, although a plurality are: 43 percent of this group underestimated their future life satisfaction, while 32 percent overestimated. Twenty-five percent got it spot on.

The researchers wanted to see whether they could learn anything more about what traits are associated with people who have more positive, or more negative, outlooks for the future. And what they found there was notable: Doom and gloom may not be all that bad.

The researchers looked at two proxies for longevity: How many people got a serious injury within 11 years, and how many died within the next 12 years.

There was some grim news for all those smiling optimists out there: "Each one-standard deviation increase in overestimating one’s future life satisfaction was related to an approximately 10% increase in risk of death." This controlled for factors including age, gender, education and disability.

There's even a chart, comparing how many of the pessimists and optimists are alive 12 years after they predicted their future happiness. Suffice it to say our elderly population may be a little more likely to see the glass as half empty.

This study is about a correlation, rather than a causal mechanism that would make pessimistic people live longer. The authors do though have a few thoughts about what might be at work.

One idea is that if you foresee the future being horrible, you'd take steps to fix it. "Perceiving a dark future may ... contribute to taking improved precautions," they write. "Accepting or even foreseeing future loss potentials may serve to immunize the self against possible threats in the future and thus serve as a secondary control mechanism in terms of predictive control."



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Ezra Klein · March 1, 2013

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