Optimism is the ability to view the world from a positive point of view; in contrast to pessimism and helplessness. For example, do you see the glass as half full or do you see it as half empty. People who see the glass ‘half-full’ are considered optimists. Of course it’s never black and white. No one is completely optimistic or completely pessimistic. Most people (estimates have ranged between 60 to 80 percent) tend to be optimists to varying degrees.
A pessimistic mindset can cause people to be avoidant, passive, anxious and depressed. Whereas, experiments show that optimists do much better in school, university, work, sports and other pursuits because optimism fosters confidence in oneself and the belief that one can succeed.
The Benefits of Optimism
There are many benefits of having an overall optimistic outlook on life, including:
Better physical health: Research has found that optimism played a significant role in better physical health outcomes for cardiovascular disease, cancer, pain, and mortality.
Better mental health: Optimists report higher levels of well-being than pessimists. Research suggests that learning optimism techniques can raise moods and significantly reduce depression.
Longer lives: Studies have shown that optimistic people tend to live longer than pessimists.
More motivation: Optimism can help you stay motivated when pursuing goals. Pessimists might give up a weight-loss programme because they convince themselves it won’t work. Optimists will persevere because they focus on success and are encouraged by even the smallest positive changes.
Lower stress levels: Optimists not only experience less stress, but they also cope with it better. They tend to be more resilient and recover from setbacks more quickly. Rather than becoming overwhelmed and discouraged by negative events, they focus on making positive changes that will improve their lives.
Optimism vs. Pessimism
People who are pessimistic tend to use avoidant behaviours when dealing with stress; they may also let their doubts about the future keep them from trying more productive behaviours.
People who are optimistic, on the other hand, actively pursue things that will improve their well-being and try to minimise the stress in their lives. They are generally more hopeful about the future. Optimism drives us to use active agency in personally purposeful, meaningful ways. Active agency is when you make life happen; it is the opposite of passively letting life happen to you.
The difference between optimism and pessimism has to do with explanatory styles. Explanatory style is the way that people explain events in their lives. Some key differences in explanatory styles between optimists and pessimists include:
Permanence: Optimists tend to view bad events as temporary. Consequently, optimists are better able to bounce back after mistakes, failures or setbacks. Optimists might tell themselves, there is no such thing as failure, it is just practice for success. Pessimists tend to see bad events as permanent. Pessimists might tell themselves, I have failed, I will never be able to succeed, and there is no point trying.
Personalisation: When things go their way, optimists generally lay the blame on external forces, actors or circumstances. In contrast, pessimists will likely blame themselves for bad events. Also, optimists are likely to view good events as being a result of their own efforts, where pessimists tend to see good outcomes as the result of external forces.
Pervasiveness: When optimists experience failure in one area, they do not let it affect their belief in their abilities in other areas. On the other hand, pessimists perceive setbacks as pervasive, so if they fail at one thing, they believe they will fail at everything.
A New Psychology
The study of optimism is part of a broader subject called positive psychology. In the past, clinical psychology tended to be much more about mental illness and its diagnosis, causes and cures. However, when psychologists started studying people who were mentally well, they were able to define the beliefs, explanatory styles and behaviours that drive mental wellness. Many positive psychologists have become well-known names, including: Abraham Maslow, Martin Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Carol Dweck, Ed Diener and Jonathan Haidt.
Martin Seligman, in particular, has done a lot of research on optimism. Having first studied what he called learned helplessness in different animals, and writing a book about it, Seligman realised he could turn the idea around and study what made people less helpless and more optimistic. He eventually wrote a book on his findings called Learned Optimism.
Can you learn optimism?
Researchers suggest that in addition to being partially hereditary, optimism levels are also influenced by childhood experiences, including parental warmth and financial stability.
This means that pessimism and helplessness, whilst partially hereditary, can also be a type of habit that people pick up unconsciously over time. It is always possible to change your habits. By changing negative self-talk and pessimistic thoughts to more positive ones, you can become more optimistic.
Seligman’s work suggests that it’s possible to learn the skills that can help you become a more optimistic person. Anyone can learn these skills, no matter how pessimistic they are to begin with. People who start out more optimistic can further improve their own emotional health, while those who are more pessimistic can benefit by lowering their chances of experiencing symptoms of depression.
To find out more about Martin Seligman and his work in Optimism and Positive Psychology check out his Authentic Happiness website at the University of Pennsylvania.
It is possible to be over-optimistic. Over-optimism can lead to recklessness, disregard of facts and persistence in the face of obvious failure. You always need to temper optimism with realism (and you need to temper pessimism with realism as well). Optimism without realism is wishful thinking; you cannot distort reality by either wishing it or with will-power.
People are sometimes too optimistic, thinking that everything will turn out well, but then they forget that for things to turn out well, they need to act. Having purpose, and working at it, is one of the keys to well-being and fulfilment. Also, you should always act with positive intent, which means constructive, productive and moral intent. As the psychologist Eric Fromm said if our positive, creative energies are thwarted, those energies will turn on themselves and become negative and destructive.
“The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life.”
― Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom
Optimism is good generally. It can make you feel better mentally, physically and socially. When it is driven by positive purpose and meaning and followed by positive action optimism will help you fulfil your potential and therefore find well-being.
There is no meaning to life except the meaning man gives his life by the unfolding of his powers.
– Erich Fromm