How to Be More OptimisticOct 03, 2022
Are you a glass half full or half empty kind of person?
This is the stereotypical embodiment of optimism versus pessimism, and it highlights just how very differently the same situation can be viewed. As we all know, life is full of ups and downs. How we view those events makes a huge difference on how those events impact us. Not only that, but our typical pattern for explaining events, called our attributional style, has giant implications for our life experience.
Seriously. Optimism and pessimism affect a whole lot more than just your mindset.
Benefits of Optimism
I found positive psychology way back in 2002 as I was brainstorming topics for my Master's thesis. I happened across early work from Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, on what he called learned optimism (more on that in a minute)...and I was hooked.
In my study, I looked at the connection between optimism, happiness, (social) anxiety, and depression in teenagers. The results of my research showed that higher levels of optimism were related to more happiness and, you guessed it, lower anxiety and depression.
No surprises there.
Tons of other researchers and scientists have found similar results. Optimism is consistently related to positive things like happiness and life satisfaction.
Other researchers have taken their work in different directions and examined a broad range of outcomes. Looking at the large body of research on the benefits of optimism, there are so many positives, and some might even surprise you! Optimists enjoy:
- higher levels of happiness
- greater life satisfaction
- more goal achievement
- more academic, athletic, and career success
- better relationships
- better physical health (yes, optimism is linked to better health - cardiovascular health, faster recovery from surgery or injury, lower risk for respiratory infection. Cool, huh?!)
- even longer life spans
Most of these studies are correlational, meaning they show a link between optimism and the other outcomes, but they don't necessarily prove that optimism causes those outcomes. Still, it seems pretty likely that an optimistic attitude impacts the actions we take, which might be the key that leads to all of those positive outcomes.
So what, exactly, is optimism?
What Is Optimism?
Some people think being optimistic means looking on the bright side, finding the silver lining, or adopting an almost delusional Pollyana-ish outlook that everything is alright...even when it's not. While there might be some truth to these sentiments, let's be good scientists here and really define what optimism is.
There are two main perspectives when it comes to defining optimism:
- Dispositional optimism: This is a general, relatively stable tendency to expect good outcomes across life domains. It's a feeling of hope toward the future accompanied by beliefs that things will generally work out.
- Learned optimism: The way you explain good and bad events (your attributional style).
I'd argue that both types of optimism are important as they buffer you against life's inevitable challenges and disappointments and buoy you to move through life in an empowered way.
I've certainly heard people argue that being optimistic means getting your hopes up and that when things don't actually work out the way you hope, you'll be even more disappointed. It turns out that the opposite actually happens. Optimistic people fare better in the face of disappointment. They are more resilient and experience less distress even when things turn out poorly. I think it has to do with the learned optimism side of the coin in particular.
Life isn't really about what happens to us as much as it is about how we react to those events. A key aspect of our reaction is the attributions we make about the event, the explanations we tell ourselves about why it happened and what it means. When it comes to learned optimism and pessimism, we want to look at 3 aspects in particular, whether we view the event as: permanent, pervasive, and personal.
Permanent: This refers to whether we view the event as a one time thing or as something that is going to be permanent, repeated, constant, or consistent. For example, if a friend ends the relationship, I can view it as a fleeting or temporary thing ("This particular friendship ended.") or a more lasting, unchangeable one ("All of my friendships are doomed.")
Pervasive: This aspect captures whether we see the event as an isolated or specific event or whether it generalizes to other domains of life and is a more global thing. Continuing with the friendship example, I could view it as pervasive ("The ending of this friendship means that I'm bad at relationships in general or even that I'm not a very capable person.") or isolated ("It's sad this friendship ended, but this is the exception, not the rule.")
Personal: Do you explain the event in terms of internal or external factors? Pessimists will attribute bad events to internal, personal factors ("I'm not likable."), while optimists attribute it to external factors ("Her life circumstances have changed, and this friendship was no longer a good fit for her.")
Pessimists tend to explain bad events in permanent, pervasive, and personal ways while optimists do the opposite. This learned optimism attributional style helps to minimize the impact of bad events, compartmentalizing and containing them so they do not spread into other areas or get carried forward with us, weighing us down.
When it comes to explaining good events, though, the script gets flipped. Optimists view the positive events in more permanent, pervasive, and personal terms, helping to bolster resilience, confidence, hope, and happiness.
How to Be More Optimistic
The really amazing thing about optimism is that it's a skill that can be learned. Rather than viewing it as a facet of your personality - "I'm just wired to be more pessimistic" (that's a pervasive, permanent, personal attribution, by the way) - optimistic thinking is a skill that can be developed.
To increase your dispositional optimism, when you find yourself anticipating the future, catch the automatic negative thoughts that arise. Because of our brain's built in negativity bias, we're more likely to go to the worst case - or at least a negative place. Instead, you can either balance your thinking by intentionally devoting just as much time to anticipating positive outcomes as you do negative ones. Or, you can actually choose to trust that things will work out.
The reality is that no one can predict the future. Period. So we can either operate on the assumption that things will work out...or that they won't. Choosing to assume that things will, generally, work out does not mean blatantly disregarding risk or not working hard toward your goals. It just means acting as though things will, overall, go well for you. It's an attitude that you can adopt.
You can also develop learned optimism by focusing explicitly on how you think about events after the fact, particularly with regard to failures or setbacks. Pay attention to the thoughts that go through your mind. Are they permanent, pervasive, and personal? How can you shift your view to something more temporary, isolated, and external?
As with any new skill, it takes intentional and repeated practice, but the benefits of being optimistic are well worth the effort!
"It's not that optimism solves all of life's problems; it is just that it can sometimes make the difference between coping and collapsing."
- Lucy MacDonald
Written by Dr. Ashley Smith
Peak Mind Co-founder
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