Optimism is often defined as a disposition to expect the best and view events and situations in a positive light. In the context of resiliency, optimism refers to a sense of a positive future, to a tendency to find positive meaning in experiences, and a belief in one’s ability to impact positively on one’s environment and situation. Optimism has many benefits for mental health, including protecting against depression and anxiety. It also increases the likelihood of effective problem solving.
Research has shown that optimists tend to have better physical health, greater success at school, work and sport, and more satisfying relationships. They also have better mental health, reporting less depression and anxiety, and live longer than pessimists. So does optimism improve one’s life, or is it the other way around? Do people become optimistic or pessimistic depending on what they have experienced in their lives? In fact, there is evidence that optimism can play a causal role in improving – or at least protecting – one’s health. For example, a number of longitudinal studies of have shown that adults with pessimistic outlooks are more likely to develop depression and anxiety than their optimistic counterparts.
Optimism may be beneficial in several ways. Firstly, optimism naturally promotes a more positive mood, which helps to ward off depression and anxiety. Secondly, optimism also encourages greater persistence in the face of obstacles, which in turn is likely to result in greater success. Finally, there is evidence that optimists actually look after their health better than pessimists. They are more likely to seek out information about potential health risks and change their behaviour to avoid those risks.
Is more optimism always a good thing? In most circumstances, optimism is beneficial. However, optimism needs to be anchored in reality. People who are excessively optimistic may not have realistic expectations about the possibility of bad things occurring to them, and so are caught unprepared when they do. They may also fail to take responsibility for the impact of their own behaviour, resulting in relationship difficulties.
There are also some situations in which optimism may not be the best approach. For example, when planning defensively in situations of potentially high risk, pessimism may be more adaptive.
Research shows that people who have spiritual or religious beliefs that offer them a sense of meaning are more resilient than those who do not. This does not necessarily apply affiliation with a formal religious institution (although such institutions offer important social supports which also foster resilience). Many people hold the optimistic view that events in life "happen for a reason". This faith in an overarching spiritual meaning or order to their lives can significantly enhance their capacity to cope with adversity.
Children who have experienced many upheavals and changes in their lives, particularly those who have had major disruptions in their relationships with care-givers, may come to see life as unpredictable, random and untrustworthy. This lack of a sense of coherence threatens their capacity to develop healthy optimism. If nothing in life is stable, how is it possible to sustain a sense of trust in the processes of life, or to believe that one can effect positive change through one's own efforts? Whilst children can be taught the cognitive skills that underpin optimism, the sense of coherence and predictability engendered by stable relationships with caring adults and the presence of everyday routines and consistent boundaries is essential for the development of resiliency.
Some children tend to be naturally optimistic and persistent in the face of obstacles. Others are more sensitive to setbacks and prone to taking things badly. However, optimism is a learnable skill. Even adults with habitually very pessimistic ways of thinking can learn to think more optimistically. Children can learn optimism unconsciously by observing people around them, such as parents. However, they can also be taught optimism explicitly, like any other skill. The 'Penn Resiliency Program', which has been shown to successfully reduce the incidence of depression and anxiety in children, teaches optimism by helping children to examine and change the way they think about the things that happen to them. There are several steps to this process:
The program also helps children to keep negative events in perspective through a process of examining their 'what-next beliefs'. This involves:
The program also teaches assertiveness, goal setting and negotiation training.
Apart from formal programs like the Penn Resiliency Program, optimism can also be taught in less formal ways by teachers, parents, and others who have contact with children:
Notice when children make pessimistic pronouncements and challenge their assumptions. Learn about Martin Seligman's optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles (above), so that you can offer alternative explanations to challenge negative ones. For example if a child who has done poorly in a subject at school declares that they are "just no good" at that subject, you can offer alternative ways of looking at the situation: perhaps they didn't pay attention in class, or spend enough time on their homework.
Help children to develop persistence and optimism in the face of setbacks by providing encouragement and support along the way. Children do not always have the persistence they need in order to succeed 'built-in'. However, if they are consistently provided with encouragement and support from adults, they will eventually internalise this support and develop the capacity to persevere on their own.
Children learn from observing others. If you express optimism, perseverance, and resilience in the face of day-to-day obstacles, your children will learn by example. If you notice that you tend towards pessimism, start working on your own thinking. It will pay off for your children!
Children learn through stories. When children are confronted with a difficult situation in their lives, you can tell stories from your own life that emphasise how you got through a hard time or succeeded despite an initial failure. Books and films which have an optimistic message can also be helpful.
Consistently acknowledge children's efforts and successes. When children do not succeed, emphasise the positive aspects of the situation, for example how proud you are of the effort they put in. Do not, however, reward poor efforts with praise.
When children feel overwhelmed or anxious about a situation, help them to learn problem solving skills by asking them to think about a number of alternatives for dealing with the problem. Do not step in to solve the problem for them. See the problem-solving page for more information.
It is important that the standards set for children are high, but achievable. High standards encourage children to reach their potential and strive to go beyond themselves. Of course, setting impossible standards will only dishearten children, so expectations need to be realistic.
Try this optimism test:
Information about optimism for children:
More about the Penn Resiliency Program:
More on the benefits of optimism:
Information for parents about optimism:
Australian CD-ROM based optimism program for schools:
Benard, B. (1991). Fostering Resiliency in Kids: Protective Factors in the Family, School and Community. San Francisco: Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development. ED 335 781. Available at: www.cce.umn.edu/pdfs/NRRC/Fostering_Resilience_012804.pdf
Gillham, J. & Reivich, K. (2004). 'Cultivating Optimism in Childhood and Adolescence.' The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591(1), pp. 146-163.
Seligman, M. (1995). The Optimistic Child. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.