There are those who see the glass as half full. They see the silver lining on every cloud and wake up with the sense that each day brings new promise. These are the optimists. There’s another group who see the glass as half empty. Like the character played by Billy Crystal in the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally , they read the last page of a book first, so that they know how the book ends in case they die before they finish reading it. These are the pessimists.

So what’s the difference in how you see the glass? After all, whether you see it as half empty or half full, it still contains the same amount of water. As it turns out, attitude is strongly linked with health. Studies have consistently linked depression —an extreme end of the negative outlook spectrum—to an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and from all causes.

Is the opposite true as well? Do optimists have a better chance of survival than their pessimistic counterparts? Yes, according to a study published in the November 2004 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry . Scientists report that among the elderly, dispositional optimists , those who expect that good things will happen rather than bad things, were significantly less likely to die of cardiovascular disease, or from any cause, than pessimists.

About the Study

The researchers analyzed data from the Arnhem Elderly Study, in which participants aged 65 to 85 years completed the Dutch Scale of Subjective Well-being for Older Persons (SSWO). The SSWO, a 30-item questionnaire, was designed to assess an individual’s health, self-respect, morale, optimism, and relationships.

Overall, 466 men and 475 women responded to all seven of the 30 SSWO questions regarding optimism. Optimism was scored based on responses to questions like:

  • I still have positive expectations concerning my future
  • I do not make any more future plans
  • I still have many goals to strive for

Based on the SSWO optimism scores, the study subjects were divided into four groups, with quartile one being the most pessimistic and quartile four being the most optimistic.

Additional socioeconomic, lifestyle, and medical information was collected from all participants at the beginning of the study.

The researchers tracked the study participants for 9.1 years, recording the number of deaths during the follow-up period and, when possible, the cause of death. They analyzed the relationship between optimism and death from all causes and from cardiovascular disease.

The Findings

A total of 397 people died during the follow-up period. The most optimistic people (quartile four) had a 55% lower risk of death from all causes than the most pessimistic people (quartile one). After adjusting for age, gender, smoking status, alcohol consumption, education, physical activity, socioeconomic status, and marital status, the most optimistic people were 71% less likely to die of all causes than the most pessimistic people. In other words, optimism became more important when factors such as exercise and smoking were taken out of the equation.

Optimism had a stronger protective effect on men than women for death from any cause, to a statistically significant degree.

The study also showed that the most optimistic study participants were 27% less likely to die of cardiovascular disease than the most pessimistic. Even after adjusting for age, gender, chronic disease, education, smoking status, alcohol consumption, history of cardiovascular disease or hypertension, body mass index (measure of weight), and total cholesterol level, the most optimistic people were still 23% less likely to die of cardiovascular disease than the most pessimistic people.

Overall, the researchers found that as the level of optimism increased, the risk of death decreased.

How Does This Affect You?

This study showed that optimistic elderly people were less likely to die of cardiovascular disease or for any reason than pessimistic people, regardless of social or demographic characteristics, or their cardiovascular risk factors.

The reasons behind the connection are unclear. It is possible that optimists may have more effective coping strategies than pessimists. For example, they might seek out the help of friends and family when confronting a difficult situation, be more likely to make healthful lifestyle choices, or be more willing to comply with the recommendations of their health care providers.

Not everyone is born an optimist, and to be truthful, it is not realistic to expect that everything will always turn out for the best. On the flip side, it’s apparently unhealthy to always expect the worst. If you find that your thoughts often turn to the negative side of a situation or that you’ve stopped making constructive plans for your future, talk to someone you trust about your outlook on things. Your life may not turn out exactly as you’d hoped. But savoring the happy times, setting some achievable goals, and giving yourself something to look forward to may lift your spirits—and help you live longer.