A Case for Pessimism

Optimism can be healthy. But assuming the worst is over also means you won't be prepared.

Lori Mehmen/Associated Press

In 2006, a tornado struck the town of Iowa City, Iowa. The devastation wreaked by the category F2 twister was sizable: The 150 mph winds left a path of destruction four and a half miles long and a third of a mile across. Businesses in the small city suffered $10 million in damages; private residences and the state college, tens of millions. The residents of Iowa City were resilient: they rebuilt and moved on. In the process, however, they lost the ability to accurately assess their risk of experiencing another disaster. They were optimistic to a fault.

A few weeks back, Emily Esfahani Smith made a convincing case for the health benefits of optimism. More specifically, she reviewed recent research on resilience -- the ability to overcome trauma or tragedy. According to Smith, having a positive outlook is the most powerful predictor of resilience; optimism, thus, actively creates positive outcomes. She explains:

When your mind starts soaring, you notice more and more positive things. This unleashes an upward spiral of positive emotions that opens people up to new ways of thinking and seeing the world -- to new ways forward. This is yet another reason why positive people are resilient. They see opportunities that negative people don't. Negativity, for adaptive reasons, puts you in defense mode, narrows your field of vision, and shuts you off to new possibilities since they're seen as risks.

I'm an optimist and would never argue against the importance of being able to move on and thrive after negative life events. But for the sake of balance it's worth taking one thing into consideration: While these open-minded individuals are looking ever-forward toward the horizon, that might mean failing to see -- and thus failing to prepare for -- the possibility of stumbling blocks still to come.

A refusal to see the negative could end up putting you in harm's way, as was the case in Iowa City. The University of Iowa's Jerry Suls, who experienced the tornado's damage firsthand, was struck by a quote in the local paper from an older woman who had refused to take shelter in her basement as a different, 2008 storm approached, even though her neighbors, who lived just a few doors down, had both been killed the last time a tornado hit. Intrigued by the way she seemed not to have been affected by the near-miss, Sul designed a study to see if her way of thinking was representative of disaster victims.

In the months following the storm, he found, most of the residents of Iowa City were not inclined take measures to protect themselves should another disaster occur. Since they'd already gotten through what felt like the worst of things, they didn't anticipate the same thing happening again. Both a month, six months, and a year after the disaster, college students and local residents affected by the tornado generally agreed they had a 1 percent risk of getting hit by another one. But they also believed they they were 10 to 12 percent less likely to get hit in the future than were people in surrounding towns. According to Suls, they seemed to be operating under the delusion that "lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place."

Call it optimism, but also call it statistically inaccurate. While in retrospect, the calculated odds of the same place getting hit twice might be large, experiencing one disaster in no way affects one's chances of experiencing another in the future.

Suls also identified a direct relationship between recovery time and optimism: For the first six months following the storm, the people who had been most directly affected believed they had lower odds of being hit again. During this time, much of the damage had yet to be cleaned up, a visible reminder that lightning -- or in this case, a tornado -- had already struck once. As the storm retreated from people's immediate awareness, their expectations for a future disaster became more realistic.

This one case study reflects a proven and well-documented phenomenon known as "optimism bias" -- the flawed reasoning that one has lower-than-average odds of experiencing negative events. Not wearing a bike helmet increases the risk of injury or death in the event of an accident, but it's human for helmet-eschewers to believe that their personal risk is less than that of other, helmet-less riders. For the people of Iowa City, it meant that they were less likely to fear the future, but it also made them less likely to be prepared for it by, say, stocking up on bottled water or going down to the basement during tornado warnings.

But what happens when you live life, as a whole, with generally pessimistic attitude? According to another recent study, pessimists may end up living longer. Or at least, pessimistic Germans.

A team of researchers looked at the results of an annual survey taken by tens of thousands of German adults, which asked them to rate simply, on a scale from 0 to 10, how currently satisfied they were with their lives and how satisfied they expected to be in five years. The team checked up on respondents to see how they actually were doing five years after they made their predictions.

They were specifically interested in older adults. Common wisdom, they reasoned, says that older adults are more realistic about the future than youth, who are more prone to fits of wild optimism. They wanted to see whether people gradually adapt to, if not pessimistic, than more measured thinking, and whether that adaptation would be accompanied by health benefits.

Because the survey was taken annually, the researchers were able to evaluate whether the respondents had over- or underestimated their future life satisfaction. Younger adults, they found, reliably over-predicted their future satisfaction. Middle-aged adults looked to the future with the most accuracy, but grew more pessimistic with time. For adults over the age of 65, 43 percent had anticipated being happier than they ended up actually being five years later. For each extra point on the scale they were off by, they showed a 9.5 percent increase in likelihood of reporting a disability upon follow-up. They were 10 percent more likely to be dead.

What was surprising was that the people who were most likely to underestimate their future satisfaction -- the pessimists -- had better health and higher income at the outset than those who were more optimistic. This may have been a case of "defensive pessimism" at play: They anticipated coming challenges and had the resources to prepare for them, giving them a health advantage. The authors also suspect that accepting the possibility, or even anticipating the certainty, of future loss may work to immunize people against being blindsided by hard times.

How pessimistic the participants revealed themselves to be, through the survey, was a more accurate predictor of five-year mortality than income, education, having a disability, being a man (a strike against longevity), or self-rated health. "Foreseeing a dark future," the researchers concluded, "is beneficial for survival."

At younger ages, of course, loss is not quite as inevitable, and seeing the future through rose-colored glasses can be a good thing, even if some disappointment will ultimately result. But with age, or in potentially dangerous situations like living in an area prone to natural disasters, too much optimism can do more harm than good. To some degree, a risk-benefit analysis is required. We each have to decide for ourselves: Is a life of caution and measured expectations one worth the added years?