The news that optimists live longer will come as no great surprise to us pessimists – we hardly expect to be blessed with longevity anyway. Researchers at a US university did a study of tens of thousands of people and say that people who believe good things will happen in the future were more likely to have “exceptional longevity”, which means living beyond 85.
If you asked my partner, he would probably tell you I am one of life’s great pessimists, though I prefer ‘realists’. When I’m in a difficult situation or waiting on news that I can’t control, I don’t blindly focus on the possibility of a positive outcome – I mentally walk up to the worst possible scenario, face it front on, stretch out and try it on for size.
“It’ll probably never happen,” friends tell me. “Oh, but it might,” I reply. I’m not trying to be miserable, it’s just less scary if you always expect the worse. Imagine how happy I am on the rare occasion when good things actually happen.
More than that, when the going gets tough, I’ve found myself actively avoiding the optimists I know in favour of the people who are happy to dwell in life’s darker places. That’s if they aren’t already avoiding me, because one of the least talked about aspects of many perennially optimistic people is their discomfort with situations that don’t fit their world view.
“When I was at my mother’s hospital bedside a few months back, as she recovered from lifesaving surgery, it wasn’t the Think Positive brigade that regularly checked in on me via WhatsApp, it was the friends who had been through similar experiences, or who know only too well how difficult life can get.”
They ask direct questions about how serious things were, and through their conversations they came and sat with me in the worst possible places. They didn’t dismiss my reality with positive thoughts, they came right up to the threshold of my fear and crossed over it, and in doing so they made it more ordinary and less overwhelming. While my family nervously awaited news, a close friend asked his senior consultant sister about my mum’s condition; he told me the truth, that it was unlikely she would survive and that we should prepare for the worst. I will always be grateful to him for that.
What optimists don’t seem to get is that there is a reason we pessimists focus on the worst case scenario, and it’s not about wanting the world to be less cheerful – there is safety in preparing for the worse, self-preservation in gearing up to face it and mentally (sometimes even practically) putting in place plans to deal with it. That means we can not only look after ourselves, but we can be there to support those around us. And trust me, pessimists are often the ones who pick up the pieces when the optimists are struggling to handle those moments when the universal is just not on their side.
Researchers in this latest study suggested one reason for optimists living longer could be that they bounce back from stressful situations and difficulties more effectively. Perhaps next scientists could look at how quickly the people around them bounce back from their own horrors, because I suspect some of their talent for recovery may come from an ability to shut themselves off from painful and uncomfortable situations. Empathy can mean not shying away from other people’s pain, and I’d love to know how many truly empathetic people really live their lives as optimists.
When the shit really hits the fan, it’s not the optimists you want around you. If life gets really tough, and it inevitably will at some point, when your own powerlessness to change the big stuff is overwhelming you, you don’t need someone to cheerfully tell you to think positively. You need one of life’s survivors, the ones who know that things can be really rough, but that you can get through it anyway. The ones who don’t fear the bad stuff, they just see it as a part of the world. Us pessimists might not live as long, but we’re very useful to have around you. Because that is the key to being a meaningful friend: not believing that things usually turn out for the best, but knowing that they often don’t, and that is survivable.