Optimism can extend life, studies find

Those with sunny outlook said to outdo pessimists in work, school, other areas

February 06, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

Now that the future is here, how fitting that researchers are finally getting a grip on optimism, the curious human habit of expecting good things to happen, often in defiance of reality.

Dozens of recent studies show that optimists do better than pessimists in work, school and sports; suffer less depression; achieve more goals; respond better to stress; wage more effective battles against disease; and live longer.

The popularity of optimism research has convinced some scholars that psychology should focus less on misery and more on why things go right.

"Social science now finds itself in almost total darkness about the qualities that make life most worth living," said Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and past president of the American Psychological Association, in a 1998 speech.

During the past three decades, he said, noting another scholar's spadework, there were 46,000 papers in the psychology literature on depression and 400 on joy. But 21st-century psychology, he predicted, "will become a science of human strength and of personal fulfillment."

The psychological association's flagship journal starts the year with an issue co-edited by Seligman and devoted to optimism and "positive psychology," an idea, perhaps surprisingly, that has generated controversy.

Perhaps no research finding quite lifts the spirits like the observation that optimists live longer than pessimists. One reason might be that optimists do a better job of staying out of harm's way. So concluded a recent study drawing on records from a project begun eight decades ago involving 1,800 boys and girls in California.

By the 1990s, about half of the men and a third of the women in the study had died. Those who gave optimistic answers to essay questions when they were young lived an average of two years longer than did their pessimistic counterparts.

"From what I'm able to figure out, pessimistic people are in bad moods," said the lead author of the 1998 study, psychologist Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan. "And when you're in a bad mood, you're more likely to do risky things," because you're distracted or reckless.

Other evidence that optimists live longer has been gathered by UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor and co-workers, who studied 78 men with AIDS beginning in the late 1980s.

Those who indicated they had a realistic view of their disease's course died an average of nine months sooner than those who were more optimistic about postponing the end. The researchers say they ruled out other reasons for the optimists' longer lives, such as less severe illness to begin with.

Taylor argues that an optimistic frame of mind actually modulates the nervous system in a way that bolsters immune-system defenses. And, in yet another study, the researchers found that among first-year UCLA law students, the optimists had higher levels of disease-fighting cells in their blood than did the pessimists.

It might seem contrary to good sense that people benefit from unfounded optimism. After all, distinguishing between reality and illusion is a touchstone of sanity.

But some social scientists have generated controversy by reporting evidence for what is probably the central paradox of positive thinking: Clinging to the belief in a positive future against reasonable odds sometimes makes it happen.

Naturally, that might often occur just because over-optimists keep trying -- a variation on the old saw that quitters never win. But there appears to be more to it.

For instance, in a report published last year about men infected with the AIDS virus, Taylor and co-workers found that the optimists had remained symptom-free longer than had the pessimists, whose assessment of their medical condition was actually more in line with clinical data.

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