Contrary To What You Might Think, Science Suggests We Become More Optimistic As We Age

The optimist versus the pessimist EQRoy/Shutterstock

We know optimism is good for your physical and your mental health. We know that it is a boost to your personal relationships and awards you better coping skills in times of stress. Hell, we know pigs have it. But we know relatively little about how it fluctuates over a lifetime. 

Previous research has studied the ebb and flow of optimistic thinking during middle age but, say the authors of a paper recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, there is less examining its development in early life. They hope to change that.

The traditional story goes something like this: The rose-tinted glasses of youth gives way to the embittered cynicism (or realism?) of old age. The journey to pessimism is exemplified in Voltaire's Candide (Candide, ou l'Optimisme, in the author's native French), in which the novel's titular protagonist wanders the world.

To begin with, Candide is a classic optimist, sheltered and naïve by Voltaire's account. But an incessant series of unfortunate events, including his friends' enslavement and his own imprisonment (not to mention several near-death experiences), forces him to "mature" and replace his earlier unbound optimism with a more realistic worldview.

But, if this latest study is anything to go by, Voltaire's interpretation of optimism is false – and somewhat pessimistic. Instead, it appears to increase as we age, peaking at 55.

The research involved more than 1,000 volunteers of Mexican origin aged 26 to 71. Participants were assessed four times over a relatively short seven-year timeframe using a six-item Life Orientation Test designed to measure optimism, a 39-item measure of negative life events, and a 15-item measure of positive life events.

In the first survey, participants were given statements such as "in uncertain times, I usually expect the best", which they were required to answer on a scale of "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree".

Negative life event measurements included questions like "over the past three months, you got laid off," whereas positive life event measurements included "in the past year, have you developed any new friendships that are important to you?"

The team predicted that those with more positive life events would show greater levels of optimism and the reverse would be true for those with more negative life events. But this was only partly the case. While positive life events positively correlated to higher optimism, negative life events did not negatively correlate. 

What's more, as with self-esteem and life satisfaction (and possibly because of), optimism seems to increase from early adulthood to late middle age and then plateau, at least according to this study. A previous study found that optimism peaks at around 70 – so, what's going on?

That might be something for future research to find out, but the study authors suggest it could be because the age of peak optimism differs between cultures and cohorts. Their argument is supported by the fact that the results reveal different trajectories between the immigrant participants and the US-born participants.

While the majority of participants were immigrants and displayed an inverted U-shape of optimism (increasing from early adulthood and peaking at 55), the minority US-born participants saw their optimism decrease between 26 and 40 years of age – only to increase between 40 and 71.

"As this is only the fourth study that we know of to examine the development of optimism, more research is needed to better understand the dynamic nature of this disposition," the study authors write. "Indeed, results of this study and past research suggested that optimism is a malleable construct that not only influences a person’s experiences but is also influenced by experiences such as aging and life events."

"What is the normative life-span trajectory of optimism? Which mechanisms drive development? And which variables account for individual differences in development? We look forward to an investigation of these three research questions to advance our understanding of this consequential construct."

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