Kids who look on the bright side of life appear less likely to suffer depression, Australian researchers reported.
In a longitudinal study of more than 5,600 adolescents, optimistic thinking appeared to protect against health risks such as emotional problems, substance use, and antisocial behavior, according to George C. Patton, MD, of the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues.
The cross-sectional snapshot of study participants found that optimism was associated with protection against all three types of risk—but prospective analysis of incident problems over the course of the study showed less of an effect, Patton and co-authors reported in the February issue of Pediatrics.
Note that optimistic thinking also appears to protect teens against health risks such as emotional problems, substance use, and antisocial behavior.
The study “provides support for promoting an optimistic thinking style in adolescents,” the researchers concluded.
On the other hand, they cautioned, “a focus on optimism alone, without addressing other aspects of cognitive, interpersonal, and emotional style, seems unlikely to have large effects.”
It’s known that—at least among older people—optimism predicts good health, lower death rates, and less depression, Patton and colleagues noted. To see if positive thinking had similar benefits for adolescents, they looked prospectively at the association between optimistic thinking styles and common emotional problems as well as health risks for younger adolescents.
Some 5,634 participants, ages 12 through 14 years, were enrolled and completed baseline evaluations using several measurement tools, during the second term of the school year in 2003. Evaluations were repeated during the fourth school term in 2004 and 2005, when the students were in ninth and tenth grade.
The researchers reported cross-sectional snapshots for each of the three waves of evaluation, as well as a prospective look at incidence over the course of the study.
At baseline, they found, adolescents who reported higher levels of optimism tended to report lower levels of depression, anxiety, substance use, and antisocial behavior. For instance, 59% of boys who said they had low optimism reported symptoms of depression, compared with 15% of those who said they were highly optimistic. A similar pattern was seen for girls to some extent.
The same pattern was observed, Patton and colleagues reported, during the second and third waves of evaluation.
Analysis of the cross-section associations showed that optimism was strongly protective against depression in both sexes, but girls at every level of self-reported optimism were more likely to have symptoms of depression than boys.
Boys were also less likely to report anxiety, but the association with optimism did not vary by sex, the researchers found.