Explaining bad events in a pessimistic way may jeopardize your health.
Everybody has something bad happen to them at some point. People differ, however, in how they explain why the bad event happened. Some people have a pessimistic style of explaining why bad things happen to them, whereas others have an optimistic style of explaining bad events. Pessimists tend to explain bad events using internal (it's my fault), stable (it's going to last forever) and global (it's going to affect every aspect of my life) explanations. Optimists, on the other hand, explain bad events using external (it's not my fault), unstable (it won't last long) and local (it's only this one thing) explanations. For example, after failing a test a pessimist may think, "I failed the test because I'm stupid (internal cause). I'm going to keep failing my upcoming tests in this class (stable). My grades will go down, I'll never graduate, I'll never get a good job and all my friends will hate me (global)." The optimist thinks, "I failed the test because the teacher's lectures were very confusing (external cause). I'll do better on the next test (unstable). After all it's just this one test, which is only 15% of my class grade, and I'm still doing well in my other classes (local)." Research has shown that a pessimistic way of explaining bad events is linked to stress and depression. Could a pessimistic outlook on life also make a person more susceptible to illness? To answer that question researchers from the
and the University
of Missouri conducted a study. University
What was the research about?
The study followed 198 students over a 9-week time period. During the first week all participants completed a questionnaire indicating how stressful they felt their life was at that time. During the second week all participants completed a questionnaire that measured how they tended to explain hypothetical bad events. The researchers used this questionnaire to classify participants as having either a pessimistic or optimistic way of explaining bad events. During every week of the study participants also completed a questionnaire that measured how often they had felt ill, missed class because of illness and visited a doctor because of illness. In addition participants reported how much they had been bothered by various health problems such as colds, headaches and extreme tiredness.
Results indicated that participants who had a pessimistic style of explaining bad events showed a positive relationship between their level of stress and how many illness symptoms they reported. In other words, the more stress the pessimists were under, the more they experienced illness symptoms. Participants with an optimistic style of explaining bad events, however, showed no relationship between stress and illness symptoms. Therefore, an optimistic style of explaining bad events seems to help protect a person from getting ill while under increased stress.
Why should it matter to me?
Although people often can't completely prevent bad things from happening to them, they can control how they deal with those events. Of course people should acknowledge their role in bad outcomes and learn from their mistakes, however, there is no need to beat oneself up over bad events. Explaining events in a way that blows them out of proportion only enhances stress and may increase your odds of contracting an illness. Instead try to realize the limits of a bad event and see the positive side of things. Using this strategy will not only limit your stress, it may also help maintain your health.
Sellers, Robert, M., and Peterson, Christopher (2002). Pessimistic explanatory
style moderates the effect of stress on physical illness. Personality and Individual Differences, 32, 567-573. Jackson