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Optimism

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:

Maintaining perspective

Optimists are able to step back from their problems and evaluate them in a wider context. They do not ‘catastrophise’ events by always imagining the worst possible outcome. They can see that everything changes, and bad times will pass.

Ability and belief in ability to solve problem

Optimists do not feel helpless in the face of life’s difficulties, but have the ability to solve problems by rationally thinking through alternatives, evaluating them, and acting appropriately. Without the cognitive ability to problem solve, it is easy for children and young people to feel overwhelmed by events that seems out of their control.

Explanatory style

Optimists and pessimists have different ways of explaining life’s ups and downs to themselves. These differences are explained below.

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.