An Optimistic View Can Help Protect Person's Health When Faced With Family Member's Death and Illness

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Researchers demonstrate the protective healing effects of an optimistic life orientation on health after experiencing a specific life stress situation.
Healing After Stress

In the first large-scale prospective study, researchers demonstrate the protective effects of an optimistic life orientation on health after experiencing a specific life stress situation. This effect was found to occur independently of a person's actions compared to other life events that can be caused by a person's actions, like some accidents. Furthermore, this study assessed a person's level of optimism and pessimism before the event, which lessens the possibility of the event actually changing a person's level of optimism. These results are reported on in the July issue of Health Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Researchers from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health, Universities of Helsinki and Turku and University College London examined the health changes in 5,007 employees after they experienced a major life event (death or onset of severe illness in family). The employees' pessimism and optimism levels were assessed three years prior to the stressful life event and again after the life event. A major stressful life event was defined as (1) death of a spouse or child, (2) severe illness of spouse, or (3) severe illness of another family member.

A person's health was determined by how many sick days he or she took during a period covering 36 months prior to the event and 18 months after the event, said lead author Mika Kivimaki, Ph.D. The employees' health was monitored for the entire 55 - month period. According to previous research on sick leave and its relation to overall health, the amount of sick days can be used to predict whether a person will retire early because of a disability and can sometimes predict a higher likelihood of cardiovascular disease, cancer, alcohol-related illness and suicide.


The authors of the study found that the increase in sick days taken after a major life event was smaller and decreased to the pre-event level more quickly for those who scored higher on optimism questionnaires than with those who had low optimism scores. Of note, said the authors, was that there was a temporary increase in sick days after the stressful life event for all participants, but this increase was smaller and decreased to pre-event levels faster among the optimists than among the pessimists.

The authors conclude that optimism may reduce the risk of health problems and may actually help a person recover after experiencing a serious life-changing event.

In contrast, the authors found no support that low pessimism would buffer against health problems after a major life event or that frequent pessimistic expectations would increase a person's vulnerability to sickness. "Pessimists frequently distance themselves from emotional events and this coping strategy may be less effective than using active problem-focused coping immediately after an uncontrollable severe event such as death of a family member," said Dr. Kivimaki.

Article: "Optimism and Pessimism as Predictors of Change in Health After Death or Onset of Severe Illness in Family," Mika Kivimaki, PhD, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and University of Helsinki; Jussi Vahtera, MD, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health; Marko Elovainio, PhD, National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health; Hans Helenius, MSc, University of Turku; Archana Singh-Manoux, PhD, University College, London; Jaana Pentti, MSc, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health; Health Psychology, Vol. 24, No. 4.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare. Web: - WASHINGTON