Optimism and pessimism as predictors of change in health after death or onset of severe illness in family

Mika Kivim?ki
Finnish Institute of Occupational Health & University of Helsinki
Jussi Vahtera
Finnish Institute of Occupational Health
Marko Elovainio
National Research and Development Centre for Welfare & Health
Hans Helenius
University of Turku
Archana Singh-Manoux
University College London
Jaana Pentti
Finnish Institute of Occupational Health

Published in ?Health Psychology?, 24 (4), 413-421, 2005

This study investigated changes in health status after a major life event.  Death or the onset of severe illness of a family member were considered to be particularly appropriate for the purposes of the study, as previous evidence suggests that these negative life events consistently predict increased health problems.  The researchers examined health problems by monitoring sickness absence records among 5,007 employees working for public services in Finland.  Optimism and pessimism were also assessed in order to determine if sickness absences were smaller and would return to normal pre-event levels more quickly among optimistic people compared with more pessimistic individuals.  Participants voluntarily completed an optimism-pessimism questionnaire in 1997 and the follow-up questionnaire assessing major negative life events was administered in 2000.  

The study found that there was a temporary increase in sick days after the stressful life event for all participants however highly optimistic individuals had a smaller increase in recorded sick days after the death or onset of severe illness in their family compared with more pessimistic individuals.  The periods of sickness were also much shorter for those scoring high on optimism, suggesting that optimism may act as a buffer against health problems.  

In contrast, the results did not support the suggestion that high levels of pessimism would predict higher increases in sickness absence and longer periods of sickness after a traumatic life event.  In general, pessimistic individuals tended to have higher overall health problems compared with more optimistic individuals and, although levels of pessimism increased after a severe illness in the family, optimism scores remained constant.  The relationship between optimism and reduced sickness absence also remained after pessimism was controlled for during the statistical analysis, which suggests that the health buffering role of optimism is independent of pessimism.  Thus the researchers suggest that optimism and pessimism should be considered as separate entities rather than opposite ends of a continuum.
The authors concluded that an optimistic approach to life may reduce the risk of health problems and may actually help people recover more quickly after experiencing a serious life-changing event.

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