Aug 22, 2014

Negative Thinking Associated with Longer Life

"The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised." ~ George F. Will

The data in support of "negative thinking" keeps piling up. I have posted a number of things about studies and assessments showing that staying positive doesn't necessarily bring positive results for either our physical or mental health, and can even be detrimental. See here, here, here, here, here, and here, for a start.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal addresses some of the newer findings that show pessimism and negativity can be better for you, depending on the circumstances and your natural disposition.

Experts say pessimism can at times be beneficial to a person's physical and mental well-being. Some studies have found that having a more negative outlook of the future may result in a longer and healthier life. Pessimism and optimism are opposite ends of a spectrum of personality traits, and people generally fall somewhere in between. 

One study found that older people who were pessimistic about aging had better health outcomes and greater longevity.

A study published last year in the journal Psychology and Aging found that older people with pessimistic views of the future were more likely to live longer and healthier lives than those with a rosier outlook. The researchers used data from a nationally representative survey in Germany of about 11,000 people. Among other questions, people were asked how satisfied they were with their lives and how satisfied they thought they would be in five years.

Much of this dealt with correlation, not causation, but Dr. Frieder Lang posits that it may have to do with preparedness and preemption, which pessimists are more likely to undertake.

Similarly, optimistic people may take greater risks. Leslie Martin, who co-authored The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study found that people who were optimistic as children did not tend to live as long, possibly because of dangerous hobbies or bad habits like smoking and drinking.

Negative or pessimistic thinking also has a bearing on our analytical capabilities, as previously discussed here. A recent study found that this can translate to poor risk assessment.

A study, published last year in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, evaluated the brain response of 16 older adults when processing fearful faces. People with greater optimism had reduced activity in the parts of the brain that process emotional stimuli. "Being less bothered by stresses can help in coping," said Dr. Jeste, who led the study. "On the other hand, a nonchalant attitude to dangers can leave the person poorly prepared to deal with a risky situation when it arises."

Another study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that generally optimistic people had a harder time coping with stress.

What much of this research points to is a need for balance. And also a need to deal with what is -- with the reality of what is actually going on in our lives.

This is also true for people who are dealing with really difficult circumstances, including things like  adverse medical diagnoses. The importance of a positive attitude in the face of serious illness has been accepted as conventional wisdom, even in the medical community. But this has not proved out. For instance, a study done at the University of Pennsylvania did not confirm that belief. They found no correlation between positive feelings and greater life expectancy among patients with head and neck cancers. The article notes that similar findings have been made in studies of other cancers.

This study, the largest yet to study this question, combined two randomized, phase III radiation therapy studies, with a total of 1,093 patients with head and neck cancer from two different radiation therapy studies, of which 646 patients died during the course of the studies. One of the studies was a comparison of different radiation dose fractionation schedules, and the other was designed to study concurrent radiation and chemotherapy. As a part of these studies, quality-of-life estimates were examined, and patients were assessed upon entry to the protocol with five questions on the FACT-G quality of life questionnaire evaluating whether patients felt sad, were losing hope, feeling nervous, worrying about dying, worrying that their condition would worsen, and whether they were proud of how they were dealing with their condition. In neither univariate (the more sensitive but less specific way of looking for correlations) or multivariate (the more statistically appropriate method), did the investigators find any correlation between feelings of well-being and survival. This held true in the face of multiple calculations to take into account stage of disease, demographics, smoking, and performance status. Even doing subgroup analyses, often the last resort when looking for some result or correlation in a trial that is yielding none, failed to find subgroups for whom well being correlated with survival. Because the number of deaths observed was larger than the combined sample sizes of most previous studies, this represents the most resoundingly negative study to date looking at this question.

. . .

The population chosen naturally has led critics of the study to argue that, while perhaps a positive attititude doesn’t prolong survival in head and neck cancer, perhaps it does in other cancers for which the treatment is not so harsh. In the case of breast cancer, however, there are multiple retrospective studies that also failed to find a correlation between health-related quality of life scores and survival (1, 2, 3) and one randomized trial testing whether supportive group therapy had any impact on survival that failed to find any benefit in terms of survival.

Dr. James Coyne, who oversaw that study, is interviewed here by Cara Santa Maria. As he points out, not only is a positive attitude not co-correlated with a longer life expectancy, the pressure to be positive can have a detrimental effect on a patient's emotional well-being. It's not, as he says, "a prescription everyone can fill."

"The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true." ~ James Branch Cabell

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