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Fatalistic Optimism: How do you score?

It is a twisted reality when years of positivity could actually mean a greater dissatisfaction in life. One study*, one huge implication…

Data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) over an 11 year period was utilised to determine how an individual’s anticipation of their life satisfaction may affect their choices and adaptations to adversity. Participants were questioned annually about their current and expected life satisfaction five years down the track. Age was found to be a key factor in levels of optimism; the younger participants were very optimistic, while seniors were more pessimistic. However, the study found an association between underestimating life satisfaction and positive health outcomes; older adults are apparently rewarded for their pessimism in the long run.

French novelist Anatole France once wrote, “I prefer the folly of enthusiasm to the indifference of wisdom”, suggesting that enthusiasm and optimism are preferable to realism. Both positive approaches to negative situations allow us to feel calm, motivated and empowered. Yet paradoxically there is ambiguity in what is foolish positivity or solemnity. Where does this fine line exist and how does one strike a balance?

To find this balance, let’s produce a scale from one to ten. Assume a score of zero represents a sombre person who is brutally realistic about life and their capabilities. Adults are good examples since they are expected to be serious and mature (other with many other uninspiring adjectives). Due to these expectations, dreadfully low scores are often produced: zero, one, two, maybe three… if you are lucky.

On the other end of the scale are the loud, almost crazily happy people, blissfully ignorant to the very notion of pessimism. Children are a perfect example.

You would think that the more optimistic individuals would be happier in their lives. Alas, apparently they are self-sabotaging one smile at a time. As the study suggests, more optimistic people tend to achieve less. In fact, the life satisfaction study observed an association between being overly optimistic and greater risks of mortality and disability in the ten years after the test was taken. Meanwhile, the more pessimistic participants are, subconsciously, more satisfied.

What do we make of this seemingly nonsensical trend? The study showed that balance is found by ‘expecting less, appreciating more’. The optimistic mindset does not necessarily prepare individuals for the obstacles of life. Indeed, lowering life expectations is in fact not as denigrating a suggestion as it initially seems. It encourages us to step back from the rush of life, take a breath and clear our perspectives.

Expecting less allows for fewer disappointments and more pleasant surprises. But let’s keep the kids fooled a bit longer!

*The study discussed in this article is ‘Forecasting Life Satisfaction Across Adulthood: Benefits of Seeing a Dark Future?’ Psychology and Aging (2013) Volume 28, Issue 1, pages 249-261.

Katerina Dandanis

The author Katerina Dandanis

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