What Is Optimism?

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What Is Optimism?

Optimism is a mental attitude characterized by hope and confidence in success and a positive future. Optimists are those that expect good things to happen, where pessimists instead predict unfavorable outcomes. Optimistic attitudes are linked to a number of benefits including better coping skills, lower stress levels, better physical health, and higher persistence when pursuing goals.

Optimists tend to view hardships as learning experiences or temporary setbacks. Even the most miserable day holds the promise for them that "tomorrow will probably be better."

If you always see the brighter side of things, you may feel that you experience more positive events in your life than others, find yourself less stressed, and even enjoy greater health benefits.

How Do You Know?

There are a number of key characteristics that optimists tend to share. Some signs that you tend to be optimistic:

  • You feel that good things will happen in the future.
  • You expect things to work out for the best.
  • You feel like you will succeed in the face of life's challenges.
  • You feel that the future looks bright.
  • You think that even good things can come from negative events.
  • You see challenges or obstacles as opportunities to learn.
  • You feel gratitude for the good things in your life.
  • You are always looking for ways to make the most of opportunities.
  • You have a positive attitude about yourself and others.
  • You accept responsibilities for mistakes but don't dwell on them.
  • You don't let one bad experience muddy your expectations for the future.

There are many factors that influence optimism, but whether you tend to be more of an optimist or more of a pessimist can often be explained by how you explain the events of your life.

Explanatory Styles

Explanatory style or attributional style refers to how people explain the events of their lives. There are three facets of how people can explain a situation. This can influence whether they lean toward being optimists or pessimists:

  • Stable vs. Unstable: Can time change things, or do things stay the same regardless of time?
  • Global vs. Local: Is a situation a reflection of just one part of your life, or your life as a whole?
  • Internal vs. External: Do you feel events are caused by you or by an outside force?

Realists see things relatively clearly, but most of us aren’t realists. Instead, we tend to attribute the events in our lives either optimistically or pessimistically.

Optimist Explanatory Style

Optimists explain positive events as having happened because of their own actions or characteristics (internal). They also see them as evidence that more positive things will happen in the future (stable) and in other areas of their lives (global).

Conversely, they see negative events as not being their fault (external). They also see them as being flukes (isolated) that have nothing to do with other areas of their lives or future events (local).

For example, if an optimist gets a promotion, they will likely believe it’s because they are good at their job and will receive more benefits and promotions in the future. If they are passed over for the promotion, it’s likely because they were having an off-month because of extenuating circumstances, but will do better in the future.

Pessimist Explanatory Style

Pessimists think in the opposite way. They believe that negative events are caused by their own mistakes or traits (internal). They believe that one mistake means more will come (stable), and mistakes in other areas of life are inevitable (global) because they are the cause. They see positive events as flukes (local) that are caused by things outside their control (external) and probably won’t happen again (unstable).

A pessimist would see a promotion as a lucky event that probably won’t happen again, and may even worry that they’ll now be under more scrutiny. Being passed over for promotion would probably be explained as not being skilled enough. They would, therefore, expect to be passed over again.

How to Practice Optimism

Understandably, if you’re an optimist, this bodes well for your future. Negative events are more likely to roll off of your back but positive events affirm your belief in yourself, your ability to make good things happen now and in the future, and in the goodness of life.

Fortunately for pessimists and realists, these patterns of thinking can be learned to a degree (though we tend to be mostly predisposed to our patterns of thinking.) Using a practice called cognitive restructuring, you can help yourself and others become more optimistic by consciously challenging negative, self-limiting thinking and replacing it with more optimistic thought patterns.

The process of cognitive restructuring involves a few different steps:

  1. Identify the situations that are triggering negative thoughts or moods.
  2. Assess how you are feeling in the moment.
  3. Identify the negative thoughts that you are having in response to the situation.
  4. Look at the evidence to either support or refute your negative thoughts.
  5. Focus on the objective facts and replace automatic negative thoughts with more positive, realistic ones.

It is also possible to develop learned optimism. Pessimists can essentially learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to adversity in a new way and consciously challenge negative self-talk.

Impact of Optimism

There has been a great deal of research on optimists and pessimists. Research has shown that an optimistic worldview carries certain advantages.

Superior Health

Studies regularly show that optimists are more likely to maintain better physical health than pessimists including a 50% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and greater survival rates when fighting cancer. Some studies have also linked a pessimistic explanatory style with higher rates of infectious disease, poor health, and earlier mortality.

Greater Achievement

Psychologist Martin Seligman, the founding father of positive psychology, analyzed sports teams and found that the more optimistic teams created more positive synergy and performed better than the pessimistic ones. Another study showed that pessimistic swimmers who were led to believe they’d done worse than they had were prone to future poor performance. Optimistic swimmers didn’t have this vulnerability.

Persistence

Optimists don’t give up as easily as pessimists, and they are more likely to achieve success because of it. People with optimistic attitudes are more likely to continue working toward their goals, even in the face of obstacles, challenges, and setbacks. Such persistence ultimately means that they are more likely to accomplish their goals.

Emotional Health

Research suggests that cognitive therapy (which involves reframing a person's thought processes) can be as effective or more effective than antidepressant medications in the treatment of clinical depression. Such improvements also tend to be long-lasting, suggesting that they are more than a temporary fix. People who have this training in optimism appear to become better able to effectively handle future setbacks.

Increased Longevity

In a retrospective study of 34 healthy Hall of Fame baseball players who played between 1900 and 1950, optimists lived significantly longer. Other studies have shown that optimistic breast cancer patients had a better quality of life than pessimistic and hopeless patients.

Less Stress

Optimists also tend to experience less stress than pessimists or realists. Because they believe in themselves and their abilities, they expect good things to happen. They see negative events as minor setbacks to be easily overcome and view positive events as evidence of further good things to come. Believing in themselves, they also take more risks and create more positive events in their lives.

Research shows that optimists are more proactive with stress management. They tend to favor approaches that reduce or eliminate stressors and their emotional consequences. Because optimists work harder at stress management, they are less stressed.

Potential Pitfalls

Optimism is generally a positive characteristic that confers a number of physical and mental health benefits. But this does not mean that is doesn't have a few potential pitfalls. Some ways that optimism can be detrimental include:

  • Optimism bias: Sometimes excessive optimism can lead people to overestimate the likelihood that they can experience good things while avoiding bad things. The optimism bias suggests that people often underestimate their risk of experiencing negative outcomes. This can sometimes lead people to engage in risky behaviors that actually increase their chances of having a bad outcome.
  • Poor risk assessment: When people are overly optimistic about something, they may be less likely to think about all of the potential risks and take steps to mitigate those issues. This can ultimately make it more likely that their efforts might fail, or at least run into major problems along the way.
  • Toxic positivity: Sometimes people tend to overvalue positive feelings while ignoring or even repressing negative ones. It can also cause people to invalidate the emotional experiences of people who are going through difficult times.

Optimists can avoid some of these pitfalls by focusing on maintaining a healthy, realistic approach to positivity. Rather than focusing only on "staying positive" and ignoring other emotions, the goal should be to try to look on the bright side while still acknowledging the difficulties of the situation.

Tips / Tricks

Research suggests that genetics determine about 25% of your optimism levels and environmental variables out of your control—such as your socioeconomic status—also play an important role. But this doesn't mean that you can't actively improve your attitude.

While you might tend to have either an optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style, there are things that you can do the help cultivate a more optimistic attitude. These include:

  • Become more mindful: Mindfulness is a focus on being engaged, attentive, and present in the here and now. It can be a useful technique to help you focus on what matters in the present and avoid worrying about future events and things that are outside of your control. If you are living fully in the moment, you are much less likely to ruminate over negative past experiences or worry about upcoming events. This allows you to feel more appreciative of what you have now and less consumed with regrets and anxieties.
  • Practice gratitude: Gratitude can be defined as an appreciation for what is important in life. One study found that participants who were assigned to write in a gratitude journal showed increased optimism and resilience. If you are trying to develop a more optimistic attitude, set aside a few minutes each day to jot down some of the things for which you are grateful.
  • Write down your positive emotions: Research has shown that something as simple as writing down positive thoughts can help improve your optimism. One study found that expressive writing focused on positive emotions was linked to decreased mental distress and improved mental well-being.
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