Optimism: Definition, Examples, and Tips
What is optimism and is it good for your well-being? Learn what optimism is, theories about optimism, and how to be more optimistic by reading on.
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What Is Optimism? (A Definition)
Growing up, were you ever encouraged to “see the glass half full”? You may be surprised to learn that psychology researchers have actually studied the concept of optimism and how it relates to well-being for several decades. In the academic world, optimism can be defined as “the extent to which people hold generalized favorable expectancies for their future” (Carver et al., 2010). In other words, an optimistic person expects good things to happen.
Theories of Optimism
Expectancy-Value Theory of Optimism
To understand why optimists and pessimists might experience life differently, we can take a quick look at behavior theory. Specifically, the expectancy-value theory posits that behavior is guided by the strength of an individual’s desire to reach a goal (value) and their confidence in achieving that goal (expectancy) (Scheier & Carver, 1992). This confidence in achieving one’s goals tends to be a trait: some people expect to achieve their goals more often than not, while others expect not to reach their goals more often than not. This theory reflects the central difference between optimists and pessimists.
How do you think these beliefs influence the likelihood of doing certain behaviors? Research has shown that optimists are more likely to engage in goal-oriented behavior (and achieve these goals as a result). Later on, we will see some examples of this phenomenon.
Interpretation of the Past
Some researchers, such as Peterson and Seligman, believe that expectations for the future stem from how individuals interpret past failures (1984). Specifically, this theory differentiates between whether individuals attribute past failures to stable or unstable causes. If an individual believes that their past failures stem from innate and unchanging character flaws, for example, they are more likely to hold a pessimistic outlook for the future. In contrast, an individual who attributes a past failure to bad luck is more likely to hold an optimistic outlook for the future.
Optimism Versus Pessimism
When you think about the future, do you expect good things or bad things to happen? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? We use these labels as a kind of shorthand - it is unlikely that you or anyone else is either always optimistic or always pessimistic. However, you likely lean in one direction, and this direction can have important implications for your well-being.
Benefits of Optimism
How Optimism Impacts Mental Well-Being
Research supports the common-sense notion that optimistic people are happier than pessimistic people. For example, optimistic people tend to report higher levels of subjective well-being in times of adversity (Carver et al., 2010). As a timely example, it might be helpful to reflect on where your thoughts have been during the COVID-19 pandemic. Have you generally held an optimistic or pessimistic outlook for the future? How do you think this outlook has affected your sense of well-being?
One of the reasons for this association between optimism and well-being is the way optimists cope with problems. As mentioned earlier, optimists are generally more likely to engage in goal-oriented behavior because they are more confident that they can achieve those goals. As such, in times of adversity, optimists tend to engage in active coping methods, such as considering and enacting practical solutions to alleviate problems.
This is in contrast with pessimists who tend to engage in avoidant coping methods, such as distracting themselves. Since optimists actively engage in problem-solving, they are more likely to successfully alleviate their problems and be happier as a result.
This active approach to problem-solving likely also explains the inverse relationship between optimism and hopelessness, which is a key risk factor for depression (Alloy et al., 2006). Optimistic people believe that they will be able to solve their problems so do not fall into a pit of despair.
How Optimism Impacts Physical Health
Optimism is also related to better physical health (Carver et al., 2010). A likely reason for this is that optimism is associated with taking proactive steps to protect one's health, whereas pessimism is associated with health-damaging behaviors. Another possible explanation for optimists being healthier is that optimism is associated with lower stress, and stress is a strong predictor of poorer health (Seligman, 2006).
How Optimism Impacts Achievement
While achievement comes in many different forms, some evidence suggests that optimists are more successful when it comes to objective measures of achievement such as education level and income (Evans & Segerstrom, 2009; Segerstrom, 2007). As with the above examples, these findings are probably related to optimists’ higher likelihood of engaging in the goal-oriented behaviors often required for academic and financial success.
How Optimism Impacts Relationships
Optimists might also be happier than pessimists when it comes to social and romantic relationships (Carver et al., 2010). Several theories have been proposed to explain this phenomenon. For example, studies have shown that people tend to like optimistic people more than pessimistic people, which has a positive influence on the number and quality of relationships that optimists have (Carver et al., 1994). Additionally, since optimists tend to view situations in a more positive way, a relationship might feel more satisfying to an optimist than the same one would to a pessimist (Srivastava et al., 2006).
Can Optimism Be Learned?
If you have read this far, you may be convinced that a more optimistic outlook might benefit you in various ways. While optimism is, to a certain extent, a trait that might not change that much over time, evidence does support the idea that levels of optimism can change (Segerstrom, 2007).
You may be reading this article because you tend towards pessimism. If this is the case, you are in luck. You likely learned pessimistic thought patterns growing up - do your parents also tend towards pessimism? While this may be frustrating, it is also encouraging: anything that can be learned can be unlearned. For any thought pattern to become habitual, it just takes practice.
In his book Learned Optimism, founder of the positive psychology movement Martin Seligman proposes that optimism is not a trait that you are born with, but rather a habitual way of thinking that can be learned like any other. As I mentioned earlier, you will likely never be solely optimistic. However, you are certainly capable of exploring and practicing more optimistic ways of thinking, which over time may become second-nature.
What Is Optimistic Nihilism?
Optimistic nihilism refers to the idea that life has no intrinsic meaning, but that this is a hopeful view. Just because life has no intrinsic meaning does not mean that you cannot create meaning for yourself. Those who ascribe to this idea enjoy the freedom inherent in this idea - you have the ability to choose how you spend your life.
Psychology researchers generally have not focused on how optimistic nihilism specifically affects mental well-being. However, there is a unique approach to psychotherapy that incorporates existential concerns such as nihilism referred to as existential psychotherapy. If you find yourself struggling with larger existential concerns such as nihilism, philosophical ideas such as optimistic nihilism might be a helpful area to explore.
Video: Optimistic Nihilism
Realistic Versus Unrealistic Optimism
Another way of thinking about potential disadvantages to optimism is contrasting realistic optimism with unrealistic optimism. The thought “I’m going to win the lottery and be a millionaire” is optimistic, but it is not realistic. This is an example of being blindly, overly optimistic. We don’t want to ascribe to delusional fantasies in the name of optimism; rather, we want to reap the benefits of optimism while remaining grounded in reality so that we can make wise decisions.
For example, a more realistic outlook is “I’m going to be able to earn enough money to support a comfortable lifestyle for myself.” You don’t know for sure that the second thought will turn out to be true, but it is certainly a possibility. It is also more likely to inspire action that will lead you to that goal of financial stability than a pessimistic thought like “I’ll never make enough money to be happy.”
Another term for realistic optimism is cautious optimism.
Does Optimism Have Disadvantages?
Research has shown that most of us innately lean towards optimism (Segerstrom, 2011). Optimism bias refers to an individual expecting better outcomes than are statistically likely; for example, that they are less likely to get cancer than they actually are. This bias could be harmful in certain circumstances, such as choosing not to wear a seatbelt because you are overly optimistic about the likelihood of not getting into an accident.
Video: The Optimism Bias
How To Be More Optmistic
1. Don’t force it.
If you’re used to seeing the “glass half empty,” you won’t be able to just walk away from reading this article and be optimistic all the time. Becoming more optimistic is like any new habit: it requires motivation and practice to become second-nature.
2. Reflect on what optimism looks like for you.
This ties into the last point. Does the idea of optimistic nihilism resonate with you? How about realistic or cautious optimism? The chances are that certain optimistic viewpoints will appeal to you more than others. There’s no need to be optimistic all the time in every scenario (this is impossible). Instead, you can try slowly incorporating new optimistic ideas into your worldview in a way that feels authentic to you.
3. Question pessimistic thoughts.
It can be easy for us to assume that our pessimistic thoughts are realistic thoughts. After all, unless we have extensive experience in meditation or cognitive behavioral therapy, we are not used to questioning our thoughts. However, it is important to remember that thoughts are not facts. If you find yourself in a negative thought spiral, can you step back and question the thoughts? How likely is it that the bad thing you are expecting to happen will actually happen? Might there actually be a positive outcome instead?
4. Surround yourself with optimistic people.
When I find myself spiraling into a pessimistic headspace and one of the optimistic people in my life is not around, I try to bring them to mind and imagine what they might say. Even just imagining the optimistic perspective in this way can go a long way towards lifting me out of my negativity. Can you identify anyone in your life who tends towards seeing the glass as half full?
5. Consume optimistic media.
Now that you have learned more about optimism and its benefits, you can be more aware of the messages you consume on a daily basis. Do the books, moves, TV shows and social media you consume relay optimistic or pessimistic messages? How might you be able to incorporate more optimism into your daily life? If you’re having trouble finding optimistic media, try creating some for yourself. Perhaps you can write positive notes for yourself that you can tape to your mirror or save as your phone background. Read on to discover some ideas for optimistic quotes that you can collect and refer back to when you need a boost of optimism.
Words of Optimism
Books On Optimism
Want to keep learning about optimism? Here are some books to check out.
More Articles That Can Help Boost Optimism
Here are a few more articles that may help you change your thought patterns and increase optimism.
While we have seen that optimism bias and unrealistic optimism may garner disadvantages, holding a more optimistic than pessimistic outlook, in general, has a number of benefits. Reflecting on your expectations for the future and cultivating more optimism in your daily life could have a positive impact on your well-being.