- Linda DuToit, LPC
Intro to Optimism
Optimism is good for us, and pessimism is not so good. Being more optimistic has benefits. In his book, Learned Optimism, author Martin Seligman indicates that several studies have indicated that optimists perform better in nearly all areas of life, including mental health, physical health, and relationships with others. Optimists do better in school, at work, and tend to live substantially longer lives in general.
Optimism is a skill that can be built, and although it’s not easy, it is certainly worth the effort! If you are a pessimist and you’d like to improve your optimism, research confirms that it is possible to change your mindset and improve your level of optimism.
What is Optimism?
To be optimistic means to see the bright side of adverse situations. While pessimists tend to see life through a negative lens, optimists look through a more positive lens. Pessimists tend to say that they are "realistic," but research shows that negative thinking often includes thought distortions which are not an accurate view of the situation. True optimism is based more accurately in reality, and is a healthier, more balanced way of approaching the events in our lives. Experts consider optimism to include: 1) our view of the future and, 2) how we interpret the events that happen in our lives.
The way we look towards the future is called dispositional optimism. Do you think about the future with anticipation and excitement, expecting things to work out well? Or does thinking about the future cause you worry, anticipating that difficult times are ahead? When we have optimism about the future, we have a positive attitude, we feel our goals will be achieved, and the future looks bright.
Attributional optimism refers to how we interpret things that occur every day in our lives. This interpretation includes our explanatory style – How do we explain why events happen? Explanatory style includes two choices: a positive outlook or a negative outlook.
How Do You Explain Life Events?
A good indicator of whether you are an optimist or a pessimist is how you view both negative events and positive events in your life. A pessimist sees life’s adversities as permanent, universal, and internal. Optimists tend to see life’s challenges as temporary, specific, and external. These viewpoints are the concepts known as permanence, pervasiveness and personalization. In simpler terms, optimists view a setback as a circumstance that will soon pass, they don’t allow the event to impact other aspects of their lives, and they recognize that there were external influences that contributed to the setback. A pessimist will view setbacks as continuing for a long time, they allow it to impact many areas of their lives, and they blame themselves. How we explain the things that happen in our lives is call our explanatory style.
When it comes to things going well, the opposite occurs. Pessimists believe good things are temporary, the good things don’t enhance other areas of their lives, and they will attribute them to something external such as another person or luck. Optimists know that good things are here to stay, they allow the positivity to impact all areas of their lives, and they acknowledge the part they personally played in the good things coming to pass.
How Can You Become More Optimistic?
If you truly want to lose some negativity and become more optimistic, it can be done by becoming more aware of how you think, challenging your thoughts, and changing the way you think. It’s not complicated, and it’s also not easy. First, pay attention to how you think about situations. It can help to write things down. So much of our thinking goes unnoticed because it happens in our subconscious. By paying attention to what we think, we bring our thoughts into the conscious mind, and that’s where change can happen. Once you begin to realize how you really think about things, you can consider changing what you are thinking. You can explore, introduce, and adapt healthier perspectives to your way of thinking.
If you aren’t sure how to develop new perspectives and change your thinking, it can be helpful to ask a trusted friend or family member, or to find a therapist who is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Our thought patterns can become so ingrained that it may take seeing the world through the eyes of others to adjust our focus on the reality of our situations.
For additional ways to help increase your optimism, here are some exercises and ideas:
Five Exercises For Practicing Optimism
Explanatory Style Guide - Optimism vs. Pessimism
Paquette, Johan, Psy.D. 2015. Real happiness: proven paths for contentment, peace & well-being.
Seligman, Martin, Ph.D. 2006. Learned optimism: how to change your mind and your life. Random House: New York