Happy ever after?

Blog pessimist

According to a study of 40,000 people by the American Psychological Association out today, being a pessimist can actually help you live longer. The lower your expectations for what life will bring you in old age, the longer you are likely to live and the better you will be able to cope.

Does that square with your experience of grumpy old men and women? It doesn’t mine. I don’t think a tendency to grumpiness and pessimism means you are going to live longer – it just seems longer.

My dad, who lived to a good, but not extraordinary, age was one of the kindest, cleverest men I’ve ever known, but if ever a glass was half full it was his. He could wake up to a clear blue sky and before he’d put the kettle on he’d be warning, “It won’t last.”
It wasn’t an age thing – he was always a worrier. The most romantic thing he ever did was buy my mother an extravagantly expensive painting with his first proper pay packet after he qualified as a dentist. It was a thank you to Mum for supporting him while he slogged his way through night school, then dental school, till he finally opened his first surgery in up-and-coming Wembley. But before he strapped the painting to the top of the car, he asked the London gallery owner to promise to buy it back should he ever fall on hard times. And the gallery’s handwritten promise is still there in black and white on the receipt – we found it filed away when we were clearing the house.

When we were kids we lived abroad on a boat for a while and even though the boat was as seaworthy as a Caister lifeboat and the water was as flat as a millpond, he would start every crossing worried that the weather would get up and we’d be tossed into the sea like toast on the tide. My sister and I spent so much time reassuring him we never had time to worry ourselves – in the end we made him a cardboard panic box to fix to the wheel to reach for in case of emergency. It was filled with two hand-rolled cigarettes. Happy days.

My mother, on the other hand, who outlived him by seven years, could see the bright side of a damp patch. “Nah,” she’d say as water seeped across the ceiling from a dripping radiator. “Trick of the light,” and trip off to another room with a less-troubling view.

Her glass and her home were always overflowing – with, cats, piles of papers, washing machines – creating a cheerful optimistic clutter and chaos that drove Dad stomping off to his workshop with its racks of chisels and spanners pinned to the wall and the comfort of an unending supply of things that needed fixing. To my dad the sound of grinding gears was a portent of a three-figure garage bill and imminent carnage on the roads. To my mum it was par for the course and a chance for anyone who didn’t like it to offer her a lift.

Dad started dreading old age when he was in his 40’s, and worried most about dying before Mum, convinced that she wouldn’t survive without him. So naturally he died in his sleep after a day spent chopping wood and sorting his workroom. My husband, who popped in on them by chance a few days earlier, said he had never seen him so cheerful. We should’ve known that meant trouble.

Mum, on the other hand, suffered a stroke shortly before she died and knew she was on her way out. But even in her last days she was looking forward, if it was only to the next halting sip of pineapple juice or to seeing Dad, who, she said, sailed past her hospital window at night in that old boat – coming to take her home.

So who is best equipped to face a long old age? The optimists or the pessimists? Let me know by leaving a comment below or Tweet me at @AmandaAtCandis.

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