Older people who have low expectations for a satisfying
future may be more likely to live longer, healthier lives than those who see
brighter days ahead, according to new research published by the American
"Our findings revealed that being overly optimistic in
predicting a better future was associated with a greater risk of disability and
death within the following decade," said lead author Frieder R. Lang, PhD,
of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany. "Pessimism about the
future may encourage people to live more carefully, taking health and safety
precautions." The study was published online in the journal Psychology and Aging.
How the study was
Lang and colleagues examined data collected from 1993 to
2003 for the national German Socio-Economic Panel, an annual survey of private
households consisting of approximately 40 000 people 18 to 96 years old. The
researchers divided the data according to age groups: 18 to 39 years old, 40 to
64 years old and 65 years old and above. Through mostly in-person interviews,
respondents were asked to rate how satisfied they were with their lives and how
satisfied they thought they would be in five years.
Five years after the first interview, 43% of the oldest
group had underestimated their future life satisfaction, 25% had predicted
accurately and 32% had overestimated, according to the study. Based on
the average level of change in life satisfaction over time for this group, each
increase in overestimating future life satisfaction was related to a 9.5%
increase in reporting disabilities and a 10% increased risk of death, the
Because a darker outlook on the future is often more
realistic, older adults' predictions of their future satisfaction may be more
accurate, according to the study. In contrast, the youngest group had the
sunniest outlook while the middle-aged adults made the most accurate
predictions, but became more pessimistic over time.
"Unexpectedly, we also found that stable and good
health and income were associated with expecting a greater decline compared
with those in poor health or with low incomes," Lang said. "Moreover,
we found that higher income was related to a greater risk of disability."
The researchers measured the respondents' current and future
life satisfaction on a scale of 0 to 10 and determined accuracy in predicting
life satisfaction by measuring the difference between anticipated life
satisfaction reported in 1993 and actual life satisfaction reported in 1998. They
analyzed the data to determine age differences in estimated life satisfaction;
accuracy in predicting life satisfaction; age, gender and income differences in
the accuracy of predicting life satisfaction; and rates of disability and death
reported between 1999 and 2010.
Other factors, such as illness, medical treatment or
personal losses, may have driven health outcomes, the study said.
The findings do not contradict theories that unrealistic
optimism about the future can sometimes help people feel better when they are
facing inevitable negative outcomes, such as terminal disease, according to the
"We argue, though, that the outcomes of optimistic,
accurate or pessimistic forecasts may depend on age and available
resources," Lang said. "These findings shed new light on how our
perspectives can either help or hinder us in taking actions that can help
improve our chances of a long healthy life."