NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 10, 2007

A study by researchers in the Netherlands has found that people who are temperamentally pessimistic are more likely to die of heart disease and other causes than those who are by nature optimistic, says Richard A. Friedman, M.D., professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the Psychopharmacology Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical Center.

According to the study's authors:

  • Subjects with the highest level of optimism were 45 percent less likely than those with the highest level of pessimism to die of all causes during the study.
  • For those in the quartile with the highest optimism score, the death rate was 30.4 percent.
  • Those in the most pessimistic quartile had a death rate of 56.5 percent.

But finding a correlation between certain attitudes and health outcomes doesn't, of course, prove causality, says Friedman.  Maybe pessimists have shorter lives because they are physically sicker to start with than optimists, or they are suffering from undiagnosed depression. 

At this point, pessimism in the absence of clinical depression is not considered a disease or a risk factor for developing one.  But if these data are replicated, perhaps it should be, says Friedman.  It is not so far-fetched if you consider that depression is associated with alterations in many neurotransmitters and hormones like cortisol, which can adversely affect physical health.  Pessimism could have the same effect. 

Source: Richard A. Friedman, "Yet Another Worry for Those Who Believe the Glass Is Half-Empty," January 9, 2007; based upon: Erik J. Giltay et al., "Dispositional Optimism and All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality in a Prospective Cohort of Elderly Dutch Men and Women," Archives of General Psychiatry, Vo. 61, No. 11, November 2004.

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