Do pessimists live longer?

My mother turned 70 this year. A retired college professor who used to work six days a week, she is busier than ever. In fact, it is very hard to get hold of her these days. She’s just returned from a trip to Portugal where she played six hours of golf for seven days in a row to improve her handicap!

She tells me about the latest movies she has seen, is enrolled in a ‘Spanish for beginners’ course, has friends over for dinner every week, and has just finished writing her first book. If her energy level stays up like this, I have no doubt that she will be able to celebrate her 90th birthday… She is reeling in the years. But why?

It turns out that, in addition to having good genes, through being physically active and socially engaged, my mother has a number of counterintuitive key traits that, as an 80-year study initiated at Stanford University recently revealed, significantly contribute to the likelihood of living a long life. One of the key variables from the study that I can see in my mother is being a ‘pessimistic optimist’. She prepares herself for the worst, and then hopes for the best. When faced with important decisions, she routinely asks herself: “What’s the worst that can happen?” And, according to scientific evidence, her approach works: if the cost of failure is high, fretting a little is a good strategy (if you want to grow old!). On the flip side, if the cost of failure is low (no life is at stake, no accident is likely to happen), then optimism is the right strategy.

In other words, we need to build a flexible ‘optimism muscle’. And, I would argue, even in situations where we may fret, this doesn’t prevent us from having a generally positive outlook on life, and we can also use some of the approaches from positive psychology to help us grow old and happily so!