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Pessimism linked to poor health.

Pessimism linked to poor health

Disappointment, misfortune and tragedy intrude into all lives at some time. But the habitual ways in which people explain the bad events that befall them may put them at risk for poor physical health by middle age, according to a 35-year study reported in the July JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PYSCHOLOGY.

The investigation, initiated in 1946 with recent graduates of Harvard University, reveals that individuals who explain bad events pessimistically in early adulthood have substantially more illness at age 45 than those who offer rosier explanations for bad events. The relationship between pessimissm and poor health declines somewhat in the following years but remains statistically significant through age 60, say psychologists Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Martin E.P. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and psychiatrist George Vaillant of Dartmouth University in Hanover, N.H.

Peterson and his colleagues analyzed the responses of 99 Harvard men to an open-ended questionnaire completed in 1946, when they were about 25 years old. The questionnaires asked about experiences during World War II. The men are part of a larger, ongoing study of adult development in which physical health is charted annually.

Questionnaire responses were rated for "explanatory style." There are three main elements of a pessimistic explanatory style: invoking a stable, long-lasting cause for misfortunes; assuming the cause of a bad event will have a ruinous effect on most areas of one's life; and identifying the cause's source as oneself rather than other people or circumstances.

In an extreme example of such pessimism, a subject migh explain his lack of advancement in the military by saying, "I seem to be unwilling to face reality," and then noting the pervasiveness of this fault, which he believes has kept him from firmly pursuing a postwar career.

Studies of college students conducted in the last decade indicate pessimistic as well as optimistic explanatory styles remain relatively stable as individuals progress into adulthood, says Peterson.

In the Harvard sample, pessimism at age 25 predicted more severe types of physical illness (a full range of disabling and nondisabling disorders was tracked) between the ageds of 45 and 60. Peterson notes that a total of 13 men have died, not enough to allow meaningful analysis of any links between explanatory style and mortality.

While the study is an "impressive demonstration of a relationship between pessimism and poor health in middle age," it remains unclear how explanatory style affects physical well-being, Peterson acknowledges. Perhaps pessimistic people become passive in the face of illness and do not take care of themselves, he suggests. Studies of college students who developed colds or flus show that pessimistic subjects are less likely to seek medical advice, take simple medical precautions or curtail activities.

Studies also indicate pessimistic individuals are socially withdrawn and have fewer supportive friends and relatives, a factor that may importantly influence health over the long haul, Peterson says.

Further studies of pessimism's link to health need to include a broader spectrum of subjects, he notes. The investigators are now evaluating explanatory styles of 1,500 men and women recruited in the 1920s for a long-term study organized by Stanford University psychologists. This sample is also limited, however, because subjects were selected on the basis of having high childhood IQs.

The similarity of pessimistic explanatory style to other personality measures linked to poor health, such as Type A behavior and hostility, remains unclear, Peterson says.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 23, 1988
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