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Resilience: Optimism

Harry Mills, Ph.D. & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

I will box checked on formOptimism is the name given to the personality trait exhibited by people who tend to expect that good things will happen in the future. The opposite of optimism is pessimism, which is the belief that bad things will happen.

A fair amount of scientific evidence now suggests that being optimistic contributes to good health, both mental and physical. Optimism helps to improve health in several ways.

  • By reducing the sense of helplessness that tends to set in when people feel out of control, optimism helps to motivate people to take constructive action (primary control) they otherwise would not bother with.
  • By making it possible to believe that bad situations can improve, optimism motivates people to change those bad situations (e.g., to stick to health regimens and to seek health advice, and also to address life problems early on before they spiral out of control). By nipping problems in the bud before they become larger, optimists end up (on average) having to solve fewer difficult life problems than do pessimists.
  • Optimism also improves a person's ability to develop friendships and supportive relationships because it motivates people to think that other people will like them. Having friends and social supports helps reduce people's risk for disease, particularly the recurrence of chronic disorders.
  • Finally, optimism affects the body at a physical level by influencing the immune system; Optimists catch fewer contagious disease than pessimists. People who are habitually pessimistic tend to have lower immune activity than people who are optimistic. This is true regardless of physical health or temporary emotional states.

The Harvard Grant Study

The manner in which scientists have learned the benefits of optimism is itself an interesting story. In the mid-1930’s, the William T. Grant Foundation decided to study a set of healthy men throughout their entire adult lives, in order to learn what factors determined success and good health. Investigators selected participants from five freshman classes at Harvard. While all men were physically fit as well as intellectually and socially gifted, they differed in terms of wealth, with some drawn from rich and some from poor backgrounds. Study participants received physical checkups every five years, and were interviewed periodically and asked to fill out numerous questionnaires about their lives.

The results of this study were fascinating. Early wealth and privilege did not predict life success and health of the study subjects nearly as well as the original investigators thought it would. What did separate successful subjects from failures was their level of maturity and their optimism. Subjects who had used 'immature' child-like coping strategies such as denial and blaming others for their problems at age 20 were far more likely to be seriously ill at age 60 than subjects who displayed more 'mature' adult style coping strategies such as humor, altruism, delaying of gratification and future-focused thinking. Similarly, subjects characterized as optimistic based on essays they completed while in their middle 20s (shortly after returning from World War II) were on the whole far healthier than subjects whose early essays revealed more pessimistic attitudes. The pessimistic men came down with diseases of middle-age earlier than the optimistic men, and by age forty-five the difference in health quality was large. In fact, optimism stood out as a primary determinant of health beginning at age forty-five and continuing for the next twenty years. You may conclude from such studies that learning to be habitually optimistic may very well increase your chances of living a healthier life. Over the next decade, as the majority of study participants reach the end of their lives, researchers will hopefully be able to learn if optimism is a factor in living a longer life in addition to leading to a healthier one.

Becoming More Optimistic

Pessimism is a habit as much as it is anything else. Like any habit, it can be changed if one is willing to put in the effort. The best method for dealing with habitual pessimism is to learn how to dispute (argue against) pessimistic thoughts as they arise. The disputing process has several steps:

  • First, you must learn to identify which thoughts are pessimistic thoughts; a process requiring some self-awareness.
  • Once you have identified a pessimistic thought, you must examine it to see how reasonable that thought is. Ask yourself, "is there really any good reason why this thought is pessimistic?". If not, you'll know how to dispute the thought.
  • Biased or exaggerated thoughts (thoughts that are pessimistic for no good reason) must then be corrected with more realistic ones.

To illustrate this process, imagine that you have to give a speech for work or school. Despite preparing for the speech, you find yourself nervous at the prospect of speaking in front of people. If you are pessimistic, you'll likely believe that something negative will occur when you speak; people will hate what you have to say, will laugh at your poor delivery and your life will be ruined. The first step in disputing is to recognize that such a thought is pessimistic. You can tell this thought is pessimistic because of its overly negative tone and the absence of evidence that the feared outcomes would actually happen. You can dispute this thought by thinking more realistically about what the worst case scenario might be if your speech isn't well received. Chances are, the speech will go fine. Even if a few people don't like what you say, it is unlikely that your life will actually be ruined. Who knows? Maybe people will even like your speech. Choose to focus on the positive possibilities, and counter your negative fears with realistic judgments and possibilities.

But Not Foolishly So

Though the optimistic tendency to look on the bright side of things and to expect good things to happen is a good overall personality trait to have, it is not appropriate to be blindly optimistic in all circumstances. For example, it's not a good idea to be optimistic about the weather when planning for an outdoor event because despite your best wishes for sunshine and blue sky, it might rain and storm instead. In such circumstances, cautious optimism is the way to go. Plan for your event, but also have a "Plan B" ready in the event of rain. Consider the cost of failure when deciding how optimistic to be about a given situation. If the cost of failure is high, you should be cautious about being blindly optimistic that your optimistic plan will work out. On the other hand, if the cost of failure is low, it is healthier to adopt an optimistic attitude than a pessimistic one.

Being optimistic makes the most sense when:

  • You are in an achievement situation, such as selling merchandise, working on a difficult report, or competing in a sporting event
  • You feel sad or depressed or need to improve how you feel
  • You are faced with a long-term situation that affects your health

Being cautious makes more sense when:

  • Your goal requires planning for a risky and uncertain future. For example, if you have been drinking heavily at a party and are thinking of driving yourself home, it's not a good idea to be optimistic about getting home safely.
  • You are trying to encourage other people whose future looks grim. For example, if your child is failing three out of five college courses this semester and is already on academic probation, it is inappropriate to suggest that "everything will be okay". Instead, it is better to realistic and to offer suggestions on how your child can best plan for the future, including a future without college in it.
  • Counseling a depressed or troubled person. It is best first to be empathetic rather than suggesting they look on the bright side. For example, heartbroken teenagers need to know that you sympathize with their feelings and that you understand what they are going through before they will be able to listen to your advice.