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February 21, 2001
Beware the Pessimists

ecently, an acquaintance asked me if I thought he was a negative person. "Of course," I immediately thought, but I bit my tongue. "Aren't we all sometimes?" I finally answered, averting my eyes from his. Although sporadically charming and likeable, my friend is an admitted pessimist with a negative demeanor that permeates all of his relationships and even affects his health. He complains of high blood pressure, has difficulty sleeping, and admits he has few close friends. Yet he is unable to fathom how his negative attitude is making him sick and keeping his personal relationships in turmoil.

State of Mind


By Nancy Duncan, M.S.W.

Being friends with such a moody pessimist can be difficult, if not miserable. If you work or live with someone who continually grumbles about life in general, his or her bad attitude could be affecting you. Negative emotions can affect people with even the most optimistic of dispositions. They can eventually ruin relationships and friendships, and can even break family ties.

Researchers believe being around negative people -- and, of course, being negative yourself -- can harm your immune system and impact your psychological and physiological health. Studies also show negative emotions are associated with cancer, heart attacks, and high blood pressure. In other words, our moods can make us sick.

You may not be able to change other people's bad moods, but keeping your attitude positive can protect you against negative influences. "Cultivating positive emotions produces an upward spiral that broadens habitual modes of thinking and acting, and builds personal resources for coping," advises Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

Research shows that production of the stress hormone cortisol increases when we experience negative emotions. That little hormone could be a factor in your decision-making during a stressful relationship. A study conducted by Ohio State researcher Janet K. Kiecolt-Glasser, Ph.D., found that women whose cortisol levels increased while discussing their marital history were twice as likely to be divorced a decade later.

So what can you do if a close relationship is plagued by chronic negativity? Plenty!

First, accept the possibility that having negative relationships can, and probably is, wreaking havoc in your life. According to Fredrickson, the solution lies in your response to the negativity. "The most important thing is to not escalate or reciprocate negativity and to have positive interactions to build solid relationships," she advises. That's good advice for times when you're tempted to get drawn into the pessimism around you.


Negative relationships can keep you in a constant state of agitation, compromising your mood and your health.


Second, tune in to your body's physiological response to stressful situations. Negative relationships can keep you in a constant state of agitation, compromising your own mood and health. Ever notice what your body feels like when your partner is in a bad mood, or when a consistently negative co-worker draws near you? Your body undergoes intense physiological changes as if it's being threatened, slipping into a "fight or flight" mode. This leads to stress and other physical responses.

A new attitude

In research that confirms the obvious, the American Psychological Association (APA) has determined that those who are optimistic experience fewer negative moods. But don't disregard these results because they seem oversimplified -- what they point out is important to remember. If you are naturally positive, remember to take personal responsibility for your environment. You can help both yourself and your moody friends just by maintaining your positive outlook. Taking control is the key to enhancing not just your own emotions, but also the emotions of those around you.

Doing that depends on having healthy self-esteem and good boundaries. So take time to learn from your current experiences. Know that if you believe your time is valuable and that you yourself are valuable, you will be ready for positive, life-affirming experiences and relationships. Here are a few tips to help lead you forward:

  • When you're interacting with a negative person, think before you respond.
  • Relax -- go for a walk, meditate, remove yourself from stressful situations.
  • Limit your interactions with negative people. If your partner is negative, encourage counseling.
  • Break old habits with co-workers and friends who try to engage you in negative conversations. Don't feed the fire.
  • Set healthy boundaries by limiting the amount of negative information you will tolerate and listen to.
  • If all else fails, consider ending negative relationships.

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Nancy Duncan, M.S.W., holds a master's degree in social work and works in the state of California with children and adults of all ages.