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.

Benefits of optimism

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 optimism always good?

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.

Aspects of optimism

Hopefulness, anticipation and a sense of a compelling future

Hope, and the sense that the future is positive and worth looking forward to, are key aspects of optimism. Young people who cannot envisage a bright future for themselves, or who believe that the world is hostile or indifferent to them, are vulnerable to depression, anxiety and despair.

Orientation to future, goal directedness

Optimists are oriented towards a future in which they have clear goals which they look forward to fulfilling. Resilient children have been shown to have future plans that are realistic, positive and achievable. They tend to be oriented towards achievement, and have educational aspirations.

Cognitive factors

Optimism can be seen as a way of processing information about the world that places an emphasis on the positive elements of experience. There are several aspects to the optimistic processing style:

Faith

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.

Sense of coherence and predictability in life

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.

Optimism as explanatory style

Martin Seligman (1995), the leading psychologist in the field of optimism, has studied the habits of thinking that underpin optimism, and found that optimists differ from pessimists in the way they explain events to themselves. This optimistic explanatory style can be summarised by the “three P’s”: Pervasive, Permanent, and Personal.

Pervasive

Optimists tend to view the causes of positive events as global, or pervasive, rather than specific. So if they receive a raise at work, for example, they will tend to think, “I got that because I am a good worker” rather than for a more specific reason such as, “I worked hard this year.” For negative events, this tendency is reversed. So if an optimist fails an exam, they will tend to think of specific reasons (“I didn’t study hard enough”, “Maths isn’t my best subject”) rather than global reasons (“I’m stupid”).

Permanent

An optimist tends to believe that the causes of a positive event are stable and unchanging rather than temporary. So if a romantic date goes well, they will think, “s/he is attracted to me” rather than “s/he was in a good mood that night.” If the event was negative, say if the date was a failure, optimists are more likely to choose an explanation that involves a changeable cause, for example, “I chose the wrong film” rather than “we’re not compatible.”

Personal

Optimists see personal, or internal causes for positive events. If they do well in a competition, they will ascribe this to their own skills. However, a pessimist will tend to attribute the success to external factors (“the competition wasn’t very strong”). If the event is negative, the optimist will look to external rather than personal causes. For example, losing a job might be attributed to the unreasonableness of the employer or to changes to the workforce rather than taken on as a personal failure. In some situations, however, it may be more optimistic to take personal responsibility for a failure, as this implies the capacity to change the situation or do better in future.

Teaching optimism to children

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:

  1. Helping children to realise that their feelings and responses to events are not caused just by the events themselves, but also by the way they think about these events (their 'self-talk').
  2. Helping children to practice identifying their self-talk in situations from their own lives.
  3. Helping children to identify their explanatory style and then challenging the accuracy of their beliefs.
  4. Helping children to generate alternative, more optimistic explanations for the same events.

The program also helps children to keep negative events in perspective through a process of examining their 'what-next beliefs'. This involves:

  1. Assisting children to look at the best and worst possible outcomes of an event, and estimate the likelihood of each. This process is used to help them to arrive at a 'most likely' outcome.
  2. Helping children to develop the problem-solving skills they need to deal with the most likely outcome.

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:

Challenge pessimistic thinking

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.

Provide encouragement

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.

Role model optimistic thinking

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!

Use stories that promote persistence and optimism

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.

Emphasise strengths and acknowledge successes

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.

Teach problem solving

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.

Set high, but realistic standards

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.

Links

Try this optimism test:
http://www.spiritualityhealth.com/newsh/items/selftest/item_236.html

Information about optimism for children:
http://www.bridge-comm.com/site/hn/optimism.htm

More about the Penn Resiliency Program:
http://www.spiritualityhealth.com/newsh/items/article/item_3469.html

More on the benefits of optimism:
http://www.wilsonbanwell.com/articles/emotional_health/about_optimism.htm

Teaching optimism to children:
http://www.headroom.net.au/family/framejamming_resil.html?optism_resil.html~resil_family

Information for parents about optimism:
http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=114&np=141&id=1550

Australian CD-ROM based optimism program for schools:

http://www.opendoors.com.au/ResilientKids/ResilientKids.htm

References

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.
 


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