What Is Optimism?
Optimism is a belief system that drives and determines the things we think, feel and do. This post discusses what it means to be optimistic and explores the ways in which optimism can benefit our health and wellbeing.
Dispositional optimism refers to the basic belief or expectation that more good things will happen to us in the future than bad. In uncertain times, an optimist will usually expect the best - the world is good, people are good, good things are likely to happen.
As individuals, we develop habitual frameworks that help us to understand and explain the events around us. When it comes to bad events, individuals with optimistic explanatory styles explain things differently to individuals with pessimistic explanatory styles.
PERSONALISATION: Internal vs. External
An optimistic individual will be more likely to focus on the external causes of a bad event, believing that the event could not have been helped due to a variety of circumstances outside of their control, as opposed to any internal causes or personal shortcomings.
In contrast, a pessimist will be more likely to ruminate and attribute the causes of bad events to internal factors or personal shortcomings, forgetting that events aren't always within our control.
PERMANENCE: Unstable vs. Stable
Optimists tend to view bad events as unstable - impermanent moments in time that soon disappear without having too much impact on our wider lives. Pessimists, on the other hand, are more likely to see bad events as stable with long-lasting negative effects.
PERVASIVENESS: Specific vs. Global
An optimist is more likely to recognise the specificity of a bad event - the bad event and the effects of it remain limited and are unlikely to pervade into other areas of their lives. Pessimistic individuals believe that one bad event can have a wide-reaching impact and affect multiple aspects of their lives.
What do optimists do in the face of problems?
In the face of problems, individuals with optimistic explanatory styles have been shown to take part in adaptive and proactive behaviours.
By viewing problems as 'challenges' vs. 'threats', optimists are motivated to seek out help and information in order to implement changes and come up with solutions. In contrast, pessimists are more likely to avoid their problems and withdraw.
When it comes to problems that can't be solved, optimists also show higher levels of acceptance, seeking out social support and engaging in humour to cope and diffuse stress.
In addition to approaching their problems, optimists are more likely to engage in preventative behaviours; they tend to be proactive about their health and demonstrate higher levels of exercise, healthy eating and better sleep quality and quantity.
The above constellation of optimistic thoughts and behaviours has been linked to a variety of beneficial mental and physical health outcomes. For instance, research has shown that optimists:
Experience lower levels of stress
Experience higher levels of positive emotion
Have larger social support networks
Have more satisfying relationships
Experience a higher quality of life and sense of wellbeing
Experience lower levels of depression and anxiety
Have a more robust immune response and recovery rate
Are less likely to have cardiovascular disease
Are less likely to need re-hospitalisation after surgery or illness
Live longer and have a lower mortality rate in the face of serious illnesses
Have more success at work, in school, and in hobbies/sports
Experience better sleep quality and quantity and lower levels of insomnia (see this post to find out more about the link between optimism and sleep).
In conclusion, an optimistic approach to life is associated with a wide variety of beneficial outcomes. As a result, research has started to investigate the possibility of promoting this positive trait through optimism-based interventions (you can read more these in a future post).
As with most things, it is important to note that in some cases proceeding with too much optimism can be unrealistic, and at times, unhelpful (you can read about the disadvantages of unrealistic optimism in a future post).
Hart (2020). Positive Psychology: The Basics. Routledge.
Carver & Scheier (2014). Dispositional optimism. Trends in cognitive sciences,18(6), 293-299.
Lopez & Snyder (2009). The Oxford handbook of positive psychology. Oxford University Press.
Nes & Segerstrom (2006). Dispositional optimism and coping: A meta-analytic review. Personality and social psychology review, 10(3), 235-251.