Look on the Bright Side: The Science of Optimism (Positive Psychology Series #2)
November 14, 2017
Ticket stub with text Yes - a word for optimismPhoto Credit: Quinn Dombrowski

Which of the following sentences best describes you?

  1. “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.”
  2. “If something can go wrong for me, it will.”

Researchers who study optimism have found that our answers to questions like these have a wide variety of consequences. More optimistic people—those who more strongly agree with example #1—tend to have higher well-being, better health, and may even be more successful. Optimism is an important aspect of positive psychology (an area of psychology that looks at how individuals can become happier). Previously, I’ve written about how positive emotions benefit us, and in future posts I’ll discuss how positive psychology can help us to be more resilient in times of stress. In today’s post, I’ll review what optimism is, explain its potential benefits, discuss whether pessimism can ever be beneficial, and suggest ways that more pessimistic people can work to cultivate optimism.

What is Optimism?

Optimism relates to how people see the future: people who are optimists expect good things to happen to them across a variety of domains in their lives. Although we often talk about people being either optimists or pessimists, researchers actually tend to view optimism and pessimism as a spectrum—someone might be more optimistic, more pessimistic, or somewhere in the middle. Importantly, and contrary to what you might think, optimism doesn’t need to mean denying or avoiding negative events. Instead, optimism is a mindset that we can cultivate that empowers us to cope with life’s challenges (in fact, as I’ll discuss below, some research suggests that optimism may actually help people cope with stressful events in more beneficial ways).

Studies have found that, on average, people tend to be more optimistic than pessimistic. Psychologists see optimism as a personality trait—in other words, something that is relatively stable and consistent over time. However, studies measuring people’s optimism levels at different time points have found that, although there is some stability in optimism levels over time, it also appears that some people change—becoming either more or less optimistic as time passes.

Researchers often measure optimism and pessimism with the Life Orientation Test. Participants are asked whether they agree with items measuring optimism and pessimism (including the example sentences I used at the beginning of this article). If you’re interested in learning your level of optimism, you can take a short quiz here.

Is It Better to be Optimistic?

Does seeing the world through rose-colored glasses end up benefitting us? Psychologists studying this question have looked at whether having higher levels of optimism is related to better physical and mental health. Although there are some exceptions, most studies of optimism has shown that being optimistic is actually good for us: optimists have better mental health and may even live longer.

Better Mental Health

Optimism is correlated with better mental health, and more optimistic people are less likely to be depressed. For example, in a study of college students, those who were more optimistic at the beginning of college reported being less distressed at the end of the semester. Another study found that new moms who were more optimistic before giving birth were less likely to experience post-partum depression. Research has also found that higher optimism predicts lower levels of depression among caregivers.

Why is optimism good for mental health? One possibility is that it may help us cope with stressful events more effectively. Psychologists have found that people who are more optimistic tend to use a style of coping known as approach coping, which involves engaging with the problem and is generally considered to be a more adaptive coping style. On the other hand, people who are more pessimistic are more likely to use avoidance coping, which involves denying or disengaging from the problem—a style of coping that is generally found to be less effective. In other words, optimism may be beneficial for mental health because it allows us to cope adaptively with our problems, instead of disengaging from them.

Academic and Professional Achievement

Optimism helps us persevere when things get tough: as optimism expert Charles Carver and his colleagues explain, theories on optimism suggest that people who are more optimistic may be more “confident and persistent in the face of diverse life challenges (even when progress is difficult or slow).” Studies looking at long-term outcomes for optimists suggest that this is indeed the case. For example, research has shown that optimistic students are less likely to drop out of college. In another study, researchers measured the optimism of new law students before they began classes, and they then followed up with the students ten years later. They found that the more optimistic students actually had higher incomes later in life.

Better Physical Health

Studies have shown that optimism isn’t just good for our psychological well-being—it’s related to our physical health too. Psychologists hypothesize that optimists may be more likely to take steps to protect their health because they are more confident that their actions will actually be effective at promoting health. For example, researchers have found that more optimistic people may be more likely to lower their risk factors for a heart attack than more pessimistic people are. One study found that pessimists had increased levels of atherosclerosis—a risk factor for heart disease— over the course of the study while optimists did not. Another study found that optimism was related to a lower risk of high blood pressure. Several studies—one of which included over 95,000 participants—have even found that optimists live longer!

Is Optimism Beneficial for Everyone?

In recent years, psychologists have examined how the culture we live in impacts our thoughts and behaviors. In particular, psychologists have noted that Westerners have a tendency to see themselves as independent and separate from others—but people in East Asian countries have a tendency to see the self as more interdependent: in other words, they see themselves as connected to others. Since many studies of optimism have been conducted on American participants, this raises the question: is optimism only something that benefits Westerners, or is it a helpful mindset to have in all cultures?

Recent research suggests that positive psychology studies may actually have different results when participants from different cultures are studied. For example, in a recent study, researchers found a link between positive emotions and a measure of cardiovascular health in American participants—but, for Japanese participants, this effect was not found. What about optimism specifically? Earlier research did find some evidence that European American participants were somewhat more optimistic than Japanese participants. However, another study suggests that optimism is at least somewhat universal. The researchers surveyed over 150,000 participants across 142 countries. The researchers found that optimism levels varied from country to country, but, in most countries, people were more optimistic than pessimistic. Additionally, across the countries, optimism predicted more positive emotions, higher life satisfaction, and better health (although optimism’s relationship with health and life satisfaction was not the same in every country). In other words, optimism does appear to be beneficial even outside of Western countries—although the effects of optimism may differ somewhat from one country to another.

Can Pessimism Ever Be Helpful?

From what I’ve written so far, it may seem that pessimism is something we always want to avoid. However, according to psychologist Julie Norem, this isn’t always the case. Norem argues that sometimes people can benefit from defensive pessimism, in which they cope with anxiety by thinking about possible negative outcomes of a situation. According to Norem, defensive pessimism can be helpful when it allows people to anticipate negative events and come up with strategies to prevent them. For example, if you’re feeling pessimistic about a job interview, you might prepare by practicing interview questions with a friend or learning more about the company that’s interviewing you—both things that could actually increase your chances of getting the job. Norem doesn’t discount the benefit of optimism, but she suggests that trying to be optimistic may be difficult for people who tend to be anxious, and that defensive pessimism can be an alternate way of coping with this anxiety. Of course, if you use this strategy, Norem cautions that it’s important to think of specific things that you can actually do something about—defensive pessimism doesn’t work if you start thinking of catastrophic scenarios that you can’t actually prepare for. As Norem explains in an interview with The Atlantic, defensive pessimism can be a beneficial strategy if optimism doesn’t seem to be working for you in a given situation: “There’s no right way to think about things that fits every situation and every person. You have to find ways of working in the world that fits for you.”

How Can We Become More Optimistic?

If you think of yourself as a glass-half-empty person, is there something you can do about this? Fortunately, research has found that there are several strategies that people can use to become more optimistic, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and imagining the best way that things can go in the future.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Psychologist Charles Carver suggests that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may be a promising way to change pessimists’ negative beliefs. In CBT, individuals work to understand and challenge cognitive distortions they have about themselves, the world, and the future. In particular, Carver suggests that it may be especially important to change pessimists’ negative beliefs about the future, since these beliefs are a key part of pessimism. Carver also suggests that pessimism may come from people setting unrealistically high standards for themselves: in this case, letting go of perfectionism and adopting more realistic goals may be beneficial for pessimists.

Imagining the Future

Because optimism involves our views about the future, psychologists have suggested that taking the time to think about good things that might happen in the future can increase our optimism. In particular, researchers have used a writing activity called “best possible self,” in which participants are told the following:

“Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.”

Research has found that this writing activity is able to increase the writer’s optimism level. In one paper, researchers conducted a meta-analysis, a type of research paper that aggregates the findings of other studies. The researchers reviewed 29 studies of optimism interventions (including over 3,000 participants across the studies). They found that optimism interventions were able to significantly increase participants’ levels of optimism, and the “best possible self” activity appeared to be especially effective at increasing optimism. In other words, if you’re feeling pessimistic, taking a few minutes to put your goals and dreams for the future down on paper can be beneficial.

It appears that optimism has a variety of benefits—more optimistic people have better mental health, are better able to cope with stressful events, and may even have better physical health. Although there are times when pessimists may be able to benefit from their style of thinking about events—for example, when it motivates them to anticipate and prepare for negative events—optimism appears to be largely beneficial for people. Given the benefits of optimism, is there a way for pessimists to work to cultivate optimism? Psychologists suggest that they can: by taking steps to examine your negative beliefs about the future and practicing thinking about how things can go right, it’s possible to work to become more optimistic.

Additional Reading:

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper received her PhD in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she conducted research on positive psychology and gratitude. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include gratitude, positive emotions, close relationships, and health. When she’s not writing about psychology, Elizabeth can often be found exploring the Bay Area and spending time with her dog, Luna.

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