Frieder Lang of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and German Institute for Economic Research and his colleagues challenged the robust, replicated finding that optimism is associated with positive health outcomes.
Lang with University of Zurich’s David Weiss and Denis Gerstorf of Humboldt-University of Berlin and German Institute for Economic Research examined data from 1993 to 2003 German Socio-Economic Panel household surveys.
The team collaborated with Gert Wagner of German Institute for Economic Research and Max Planck Institute for Human Development evaluated approximately ratings from 40,000 people 18 to 96 years old, concerning their current and predicted life satisfaction in five years.
Five years after the first interviews:
- 43 percent of participants were more satisfied with their lives than predicted,
- 25 percent predicted accurately
- 32 percent overestimated their life satisfaction with an optimistic bias.
Lang, Weiss, Gerstorf, and Wagner calculated that overestimating future life satisfaction was related to a 9.5 percent increase in reporting disabilities and a 10 percent increased incidence of death.
The youngest participants had the most optimistic outlook, whereas middle-aged adults made the most accurate predictions, but became more pessimistic over time.
Older adults’ predictions of future life satisfaction may be more accurate, albeit less optimistic, consistent with Shelley Taylor, Ellen Langer, Lauren Alloy, Lyn Abramson and others demonstration of an “optimism bias” and “depressive realism.”
In contrast to findings that higher income is associated with better health outcomes, Lang’s team found that stable, good health and income were associated with expecting a greater decline compared with those in poor health or with low incomes.
In contrast to other findings, higher income was related to a greater risk of disability.
Lang and team concluded that the outcomes of optimistic, accurate or pessimistic forecasts may depend on age, available resources, and motivation to adopt health-improving behaviors.
They acknowledged that unrealistic optimism about the future may help people feel better when they are facing inevitable negative outcomes, such as terminal disease.
Similarly, Neil Weinstein of Rutgers found that people may underestimate susceptibility to harm from a variety of hazards.
Close to 300 volunteers across age, gender, educational levels and occupational groups, demonstrated an optimism bias that they were less at risk than peers.
Weinstein hypothesized that optimism bias may be introduced when people extrapolate from their past experience to estimate their future vulnerability.
Therefore, volunteers future expectations may be biased because they tended not to expect problems they had not already experienced.
He demonstrated that these personal risk judgments were not correlated with volunteers’ actual objective risk factors, suggesting that volunteers did not modify their optimistic biases based on laboratory findings, physical examination, and reported health habits.
Positive illusions persist even in the face of contradictory evidence.
These findings that optimistic bias may not be associated with positive health outcomes contrasts with findings from including University of Michigan’s Eric S Kim, Nansook Park, and Christopher Peterson, who found that “Dispositional Optimism” protects older adults from stroke.
Similarly, George Patton and colleagues at Royal Children’s Hospital in Parkville, Victoria, Australia reported that optimism has a somewhat protective effect on adolescent health risks in a prospective study.
Yet another counterpoint to Lang and team’s work was offered by Eric Giltay and colleagues at Leiden University Medical Center Johanna Geleijnse, Frans Zitman, Brian Buijsse, and Daan Kromhout, who demonstrated that optimists typically report healthier habits, like less smoking and drinking alcohol, more physical activity and consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole-grain bread.
-*What do you make of these conflicting findings about optimism’s role in health outcomes?
-*How have you seen optimism relate to health outcomes: Does it seem to drive healthy behaviors and outcomes or poorer health?
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