Pessimism – It Could Save Your Mind

It was only last month that we learned how shared negative opinions and attitudes can result in the formation of speedy and genuine relationships between people. Now there’s research to show that a pessimistic outlook might be better for mental health overall. Before you take this as your cue to walk around with a frown and expect to live longer as a result, it might be worth your while (and your life) to take a closer look at the study by O’Mara, McNulty and Karney that makes this claim.

The researchers set out to examine the best method to dealing with life stressors and determine if positive outlook resulted in improved mental health. Studies thus far have yielded mixed results on this issue. While some say positive appraisals of stressful events can benefit mental health in the long run, others caution against not gauging threatening events accurately. The researchers decided to study the experiences of recently married couples over a sustained period of time.

To do this, the researchers measured the severity of controllable, negative situations (based on observer ratings), perceived marital satisfaction (based on the subjects’ own ratings), and depressive symptoms — each assessed at particular set points. Through two carefully controlled studies, they were able to reconcile the disparate conclusions of past research. The factor that appears to be responsible for this difference appears to be the severity of stress faced by the subject.

O’Mara and colleagues included a cost-benefit analysis within the structure of their research. They found that in the case of those subjects experiencing less stressful situations — as measured by the observers — a positive perspective lead to increased mental health over time. In more stressful instances, this same perspective was found to correlate with an increase in depressive symptoms over time. Lastly, if an initially positive appraisal of low-severity stressful events continued to be applied even as events increased in levels of stress, mental health was found to decline as well.

So what’s the moral of the story? By all means, be optimistic and when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But when the sh*t hits the fan, keep a cool head. It’s doing you no good to imagine rose petals are hitting your face.


O’Mara EM, McNulty JK, & Karney BR (2011). Positively biased appraisals in everyday life: when do they benefit mental health and when do they harm it? Journal of personality and social psychology, 101 (3), 415-32 PMID: 21500926

Image via stocknadia / Shutterstock.

Radhika Takru, MA

Radhika Takru, MA, has a Bachelor's Degree with Honors in Psychology, a Postgraduate Degree in Media, and a Masters degree by research on online journalism and perceptions of authority.
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