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Does Optimism Ward Off Depression?

January 12, 2011

An Australian study of over 5,600 teens finds that those with a bright outlook on their lives and the world they live in suffer fewer depression symptoms than their pessimistic counterparts.

Published in the journal Pediatrics, Dr. George C. Patton of the University of Melbourne and Royal Children’s Hospital in Australia and his colleagues followed 5,634 Australian students who were between the ages of 12 and 14 at the outset.

Whether their optimism deserves the credit is not clear. The broader questions of whether optimism is something that can be “taught” — and if it’s even a good idea to try — are up in the air.

But researchers say the findings do argue for helping teenagers to better manage their sometimes dramatic reactions to life’s ups-and-downs.

“We don’t really know why some teens are more optimistic than others, and how teachable optimism is,” Reuters quotes the researchers as saying.

People’s tendency to accentuate the positive — or not — probably takes shape early in life, and may be related to their parents’ dispositions, Dr. Pattonsaid in an e-mail to Reuters reporter Amy Norton.

However, Patton also said that kids’ outlooks often get darker as they go through their teen years. “So what is perhaps avoidable is the catastrophic reaction some teens can have when something goes wrong,” he said.

About 15 percent of the teens with the highest level of optimism also scored high enough on a standard questionnaire to suggest at least mild depression.  That compared with 59 percent of boys and 76 percent of girls with “very low” optimism levels who showed signs of depression.

Researchers continued by stating that the most optimistic teens were half as likely to report new depression symptoms one year later, compared with their least-positive peers.  These positive-thinking teens were less likely to report depression symptoms at the study’s start.

Patton said the findings do not mean that telling teens to “look on the sunny side of life” will keep them from developing emotional problems. But he added that as teenagers go through their ups and downs, it is important to help them keep it all in perspective.

Patton suggested that when kids have something go wrong in their lives, parents try to get them to have an “honest and realistic dialogue” about it.  They may be less vulnerable to becoming depressed in response to the more ordinary setbacks of life.

“However, much of what the study captured may not have been kids’ dispositional optimism, but their mood at the time,” James C. Coyne, who directs the Behavioral Oncology Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia told Reuters.

“It’s not surprising,” Coyne told Reuters Health, “that kids deemed very low in optimism would frequently have depression symptoms, and even if optimism itself is protective, it probably is not all that changeable,” Coyne said.

“Optimism,” Coyne continues, “can be seen as a product of a person’s basic personality and current circumstances — rich people typically have more reason for a bright outlook than poor people, for instance.  But even when that poor person wins the lottery, the positive feelings eventually fade.  People revert back to who they are,” Coyne says.

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