Optimism is the tendency to anticipate favorable outcomes. The expression, “The glass is half full” is often used to refer to optimistic thinking. Optimism is widely considered to be the opposite of pessimism.
What Is Optimism?
Optimistic people tend to have more positive thoughts, be more hopeful, and view the future in a positive light. When a situation is neutral, a person who is optimistic will be more likely to see it as positive, while a pessimistic person is more likely to see it as negative. Optimistic people also tend to see positive aspects of frustrating situations. Optimistic thinking can be a one-time event; it can also be a strategy for coping with stress or a personality trait.
Optimism bias refers to the tendency to underestimate the chances of something harmful, such as an accident, breakup, or sickness, happening to oneself. It also encompasses beliefs about oneself that are unrealistically positive. For example, optimism bias causes most people to believe they are smarter, healthier, or harder working than the average person. Optimism bias helps protect well-being by enabling people to take risks that lead to growth. It can also be a motivating factor in promoting self-care and behaviors that increase an individual’s chances of success. However, optimism bias may also cause an individual to engage in risky behaviors, believing negative consequences won’t befall them.
In recent years, there has been a flurry of research into the benefits of optimism, and many people are interested in learning how to be more optimistic. For example, the book The Power of Positive Thinking focuses on the benefits of optimism and recommends strategies for becoming more optimistic. Many self-help books recommend coping skills that involve optimism or offer specific strategies for stopping negative thoughts and replacing them with more optimistic ones.
Learning to be optimistic is more complex than just “focusing on the positive.” Developing a more optimistic perspective typically involves recognizing personal difficulties and then thinking about them in ways that support growth and resilience. Additionally, parents can help children learn optimism by modeling behaviors that reflect a positive frame of mind.
Martin Seligman, PhD is a prominent voice in the field of positive psychology and a proponent of learned optimism. In his research, he has demonstrated that practicing optimism can improve an individual’s physical and mental health as well as their success in the workplace.
Examples of Optimism
People can have different levels of optimism over time, and one’s degree of optimism can change depending on the context or situation. Here are some examples of optimism in action:
- A person who is going through a difficult divorce tries to focus on positive aspects of the divorce process.
- When a person hears the phone ring, they assume the person on the other line is someone they want to hear from.
- A child who loses their favorite toy believes that another child found the toy and is enjoying it.
Healthy optimism allows people to identify and take advantage of opportunities that lead to growth and success. It may also help people maintain better mental health through stressful or difficult times.
Types of Optimism
Optimism can come in many forms, and some types of optimism may be healthier than others. Some common types of optimism include:
- Comparative optimism: A comparative optimist tends to believe they are more likely than others to experience positive events.
- Nihilistic optimism: Also referred to as optimistic nihilism, those who subscribe to this belief find hope in nihilism, or the idea that life has no intrinsic meaning. Nihilistic optimists are likely to feel empowered by their beliefs and come from the perspective that it is up to them to create meaning in their own lives.
- Unrealistic optimism: Unrealistic optimism can be contrasted with healthy optimism. While healthy optimism allows a person to take a beneficial amount of risk, unrealistic optimism may cause a person to greatly overestimate factors in their favor, leading them to make potentially unsafe decisions not based in reality. Unrealistic optimism is often used synonymously with optimism bias.
- Philosophical optimism: The opposite of philosophical pessimism, philosophical optimism is the belief that the present moment is the best of all possible outcomes. Many connect this idea to the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who is known for his Principle of the Best (among other things), or the idea that all things happen for the best.
There are a variety of ways to conceptualize optimism. In the context of mental and physical health, for example, optimism may be a key component of well-being.
Optimism and Mental Health
There is evidence that optimistic thinking is correlated with better mental health. For example, people experiencing depression tend to be overwhelmed by negative, pessimistic thoughts that then exacerbate the depression. Some mental health professionals work to help people develop healthy thought processes to combat depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
Researchers have investigated how optimism affects physical health as well as mental well-being. One way optimism benefits physical health is by establishing positive expectations. For instance, a person who believes they have the power to improve their health may be more likely to successfully improve their health, as opposed to someone who does not believe in their ability to improve their health.
Many studies have illustrated the benefits optimism can have on health. A 10 year study found that its most pessimistic participants were two times as likely to end up with heart disease than the most optimistic participants. The study accounted for other risk factors of heart disease. Optimism has also been linked to lower blood pressure.
Optimism may be just as important when it comes to mental health and emotional well-being. Research on burnout among hospital nurses found that nurses with higher levels of optimism had lower chances of experiencing burnout. In another study with combat veterans, dispositional optimism was linked to fewer posttraumatic stress (PTSD) and depression symptoms as well as overall stronger mental health. And one study even found that optimists were more likely to experience greater satisfaction in romantic relationships.
Optimism as a Personality Trait
Researchers have linked dispositional optimism to some factors of the Big Five personality scale: emotional stability, extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. It’s estimated that genetics may account for up to 30% of a person’s likelihood of being an optimist. In one study, scientists discovered that variants of a gene responsible for oxytocin reception could impact a person’s chances of being optimistic.
Children of optimists tend to be more optimistic themselves, and this may be partially due to the genetic basis for optimism. However, optimism may also be learned early in development. A family’s socioeconomic status has also been found to impact whether a child would grow up to be more optimistic. Optimistic thinking is a relatively stable personality trait, but life experiences such as trauma and stress can limit a person’s optimistic thinking.
Hope vs. Optimism
Hope and optimism are similar but distinct concepts. Both are positively correlated to health and resilience, but while hope is more directly related to agency, optimism is more directly connected to expectations.
- Hope: Hope typically refers to a feeling often connected to motivation. A hopeful individual is more likely to believe they have the power to reach their goals.
- Optimism: Optimism may more often refer to a person’s expectations for the future. When someone is optimistic, they are likely to believe that what they hope for will eventually come to pass.
Both hope and optimism may be influenced partly by genetics and one’s environment. People with higher levels of optimism and hope have been found to be better at withstanding uncertainty and have less fear of the unknown.
If you are trying to cultivate more optimism in your life, know that this goal is possible. Working with a compassionate and trained therapist can help you develop the skills you need to foster an optimistic perspective while developing your coping skills and resilience. Locate a therapist in your area.
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Last Updated: 12-5-2019
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Najeeb AJuly 16th, 2019 at 8:58 AM
we are what we thing, believe and act. our action is everything
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