Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A healthy dose of pessimism

A healthy dose of pessimism

Ruthie Blum

A new study, released by the American Psychological Association, has called into question previous assumptions about health and happiness. According to the data — collected over the course of more than a decade — those of us who believe that the best way to beat physical and emotional malaise is to "look on the bright side" have it all wrong. What the findings reveal is that pessimists enjoy greater longevity and satisfaction than "glass half full" folks.

This may be counter-intuitive, but it could be good news for the Jews. It might even shed light on a key paradox inherent in the people who wish that God would "choose someone else for a change."

We can always be counted on to fret, for example, about the mountains and the molehills. Whether worried about making it across a border, making a living, or making dinner, we excel at feeling and expressing imminent disaster. This is not for nothing. Genuine hardship is something with which we are far too familiar. In fact, given the atrocities endured by Jews throughout history, it is a miracle that any of us are still around to botch a bar-mitzvah menu, let alone kvetch about it.

This does not prevent us from wondering how a Holocaust survivor can start a new family after losing all their loved ones in the war, while simultaneously worrying about mundane matters like a bad haircut. We imagine that it would be more logical for him to consider daily annoyances too trivial to bother with.

When in the presence of such a hero, we know he is special for his survival skills. We commiserate if he is among those living in poverty as a result of the government’s mishandling of reparations from Germany. We are less aware, however, that the awe he inspires is as much a function of his ability to lose his temper in traffic.

The State of Israel as a whole is characterized by this very dichotomy. It came into being against all odds and facing every form of adversity. It has continued to thrive under circumstances that would cause other countries to crumble. Nevertheless, the decibel level of the bitching and moaning on the part of the public is often as deafening at exclusive spas and sushi bars as it is on the unemployment line. Meanwhile, polls on personal well-being consistently put Israel high on the happy scale.

The new study — conducted (ironically) by a team of mostly German researchers led by Dr. Frieder R. Lang of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg — deals with the effect of age and other factors on one's health, happiness, and the perception of both.

What Lang discovered was "that being overly optimistic in predicting a better future was associated with a greater risk of disability and death within the following decade." He also found that "stable and good health and income were associated with expecting a greater decline compared with those in poor health or with low incomes … [and] that higher income was related to a greater risk of disability."

What he concluded from this was that "pessimism about the future may encourage people to live more carefully, taking health and safety precautions," while those who are optimistic about what lies ahead tend to be less careful and to experience higher levels of disappointment when things don't work out the way they had hoped when they were younger.

Set aside for a moment the fact that academics are capable of spending time and earning money to acquire morsels of common sense that the rest of us learn by living. This is one of the reasons for my skepticism about certain kinds of research.

But this body of work provides an inadvertent explanation for why Jews pout and prosper, prosper and pout, and live to a ripe old age when not killed by enemies. Though we possess as large a percentage of political utopians as Nobel Prize laureates, we actually fear the future, based on past experience. And despite being the People of the Book, we are fundamentally superstitious. So when the going gets good, we immediately anticipate the pitfalls that are sure to follow. That they inevitably do is what qualifies us, in retrospect, as realists. It should be noted here that it is the study's "realists" who fared best in their lives.

Optimists beware.

Ruthie Blum is the author of "To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the 'Arab Spring.'"