Dictionaries tend to define “being optimistic” as taking a favourable view of circumstances and expecting the most favourable outcome. Some people describe optimism as “looking on the bright side”. A few cynics even equate being optimistic with “viewing the world through rose-coloured glasses.” No matter how we describe it, optimism is a pretty big part of positive psychology today and has been a major subject of research for decades now.
In his seminal study on optimism, pessimism and explanatory styles, Dr Martin Seligman explained why some people develop optimistic attitudes, and some don’t. Hint – it’s partly about what we learn while growing up. More importantly, he proposed that anybody can learn to be more optimistic. I loved his book “Learned Optimism – How To Change Your Mind And Your Life”. When I first read it last year, the quiz in the book showed me what I already knew – I struggle with optimism. Using my learning from this book (it still sits by my bedside) I am working on being more optimistic in life. You can take Dr Seligman’s Learned Optimism Test online too, to find out whether your own explanatory style is optimistic or pessimistic.
Dr Seligman defines optimism in terms of a person’s explanatory style. Optimistic people, when confronted with a difficult situation or a negative event, believe that it is
- Temporary instead of permanent
- Limited in scope instead of pervasive
- Not due to some personal fault of theirs
Pessimists think just the opposite.
This video is an interesting summary of the concepts of Dr Seligman’s book. I would highly recommend the book though.
Now the question arises, why is being optimistic such a big deal? This is where the results of the aforementioned decades of research come in.
Optimism and its impact on physical health
Studies across the world have found a link between a person’s optimism (measured through tests) and health outcomes.The mere act of expecting positive outcomes and being hopeful can boost a person’s immune system, protect against harmful behaviours and prevent chronic disease. Optimism can even predict a long life.
- A 2015 study conducted in the United States found that optimistic people were twice as likely to have strong cardiovascular health because they had lower levels of stress hormones, exercised more and were less likely to smoke.
- A 2008 study of 2,873 healthy men and women found that a positive outlook on life was linked to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, even after taking other factors into account. In women, but not men, a sunny disposition was also associated with lower levels of two markers of inflammation (C-reactive protein and interleukin-6), which predict the risk of heart attack and stroke. Other possible benefits include reduced levels of adrenaline and improved immune function.
- Another study examined whether explanatory styles served as risk factors for early death. The researchers found that for every 10 point increase in a person’s score on their optimism scale, the risk of early death decreased by 19%.
- A 2006 study explored the link between emotions and respiratory viral infections. Scientists evaluated the personality style of 193 healthy volunteers, then gave each a common respiratory virus. Subjects who displayed a positive personality style were less likely to develop viral symptoms.
- Optimism also plays a role in the recovery from illness and disease. Multiple studies have investigated the role of optimism in people undergoing treatment for cancer, for instance. The research indicates that not only are optimistic people better able to deal with a potentially life-threatening diagnosis but also that being optimistic helps them deal with the intensive and difficult treatment period.
Optimism and its link to emotional health
- Being optimistic is important when it comes to dealing with important life events. Optimism gives us the strength to respond better to any challenge that life throws at us.
- A 1996 study found a positive correlation between optimism and one’s self-esteem and general satisfaction in life.
- An optimist, when faced with a difficulty, is more likely than a pessimist to try and solve the difficulty, simply because he/she will see the difficulty as temporary, unlike the pessimist. This behaviour will eventually contribute towards psychological well-being too.
- Optimists, by focusing on the positives of a situation, are able to recover faster from a setback. This helps to keep anxiety and depression at bay.
So we see how optimism can be such a powerful tool to keep us healthy and happy. Optimists tend to live longer, be healthier, and enjoy their lives more. Being optimistic even seems to be an art we can learn if we put our minds to it. Is there such a thing as too much optimism? Well, yes, a sunny outlook does need to be tempered with a dash of pragmatism. But, on the whole, one is definitely better off looking at the glass as half-full rather than half-empty.
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