A study from the University of Valencia in Spain recently tested how optimism and pessimism are related to the physiological stress response of a stressful situation, and to how this situation is perceived. To do so, 72 healthy participants over 55 years of age were exposed to a standardized social stress task. Participants’ optimism and pessimism scores (defined by the authors as overall positive or negative generalized expectations about the future), as well as their perception of the stressful situation following exposure, were measured. Results suggest that optimistic participants showed significantly lower physiological stress responses than pessimistic participants to the stressful situation, as revealed by lower heart rates and cortisol levels (an important stress hormone). Optimism was also associated with a significantly faster recovery from stress, as demonstrated by heart rate and cortisol level recovery. In addition, pessimistic participants reported having perceived the task as more difficult and requiring more effort compared to optimistic participants.
Thus, optimism appears to be associated with better physiological adaptation to a stressor, while pessimism seems to be associated with lower psychological adjustment to a stressful situation, characterized by a more negative perception of the latter. Personal resources such as optimism may thus gain in significance in the aging population’s ability to regulate stress.