Optimists for the win!

The optimists

We all know someone who is an optimist. Maybe you are an optimist! Optimism is feeling hopeful or confident that things will go well in the future. It is the belief that better days are coming, things will work out, that the future is bright. Optimists can be annoyingly cheerful, or calm but hopeful. Today we will share why we should work to be more optimistic.

Why is it better to be an optimist?

Optimists are healthier. Negative feelings can hurt your body, just like stress does. Positive feelings ‘undo’ the impact of those negative feelings. This helps us cope with stress and improves our physical health. Optimists recover faster from surgery and survive longer after a heart attack. This may be because they are more likely to do what is necessary to ensure good health in the future. This makes optimists generally healthier than those low in optimism. Optimists also have less mental health issues. They are less likely to become depressed or anxious.

Scientists have compared optimists and pessimists. They find optimists are more athletic, more successful at school and work, and they are more satisfied with their marriages. Optimism is one of the strengths especially likely to predict life satisfaction. It is the positive feelings that help us cope with hard times. If we feel optimistic about the future, we bounce back. We are more resilient. When we have positive feelings, we are able to be more creative and we are more confident. In one experiment, 14-year-old-boys were asked to choose between two tasks. One required skills for a big reward. The other required waiting for a small reward. The optimistic boys chose the skilled task and approached it more confidently, even before they knew what the task was. That sounds like bravery!

How does it work?

Our beliefs are self-reinforcing. We seek out information that confirms our beliefs and we ignore the rest. Or at least most people do. This means optimists’ belief that things will be ok makes them focus on what did work out. Optimists now have memories full of things working out. This makes them believe things will continue to work out in the future.

Mind games…or not…

It’s not just a trick of the mind. Optimists confront their problems rather than hiding or running away from them. They make plans. These plans are concrete actions that help them solve problems and get to their desired futures. When optimists make their plans, they focus on what they can control. They persist when they come across obstacles.

Optimists look for meaning in their setbacks. This allows them to process the event and move forward. They believe that failures come from specific causes. They think that if they identify the problem, and make appropriate changes, they will succeed. Pessimists may overreact. They may look at the same setback and use it to confirm their negative beliefs. Those beliefs are: they have no control over the situation, things won’t work out, and things can’t be changed. Pessimists also take setbacks as a bigger sign. They believe that small setbacks are signs that everything will be bad. Optimists are much more resilient than pessimists.

Optimism set points

Everyone has a different level of optimism. Scientists wanted to know if we are born optimistic or if it is taught. The answer is both. There is a genetic component to optimism, but it is a skill that can be taught. One research study examined 10-year-olds. Half the group was taught how to think and interpret the world optimistically. This cut their chances of suffering from depression as a teenager in half. Half! And even those who are pessimistic can become a bit more optimistic when they see themselves succeed.

Feeling pessimistic?

When we are tired, as we many of us are, it is more difficult to be optimistic. This is why there is that expression “things will seem better in the morning”.  Another thing that makes us more vulnerable to pessimism is criticism. Criticism can make us overestimate the negative. Instead of hearing “the task is difficult”, we may hear “I suck at this”. Maybe this has happened to you. Many of us overreact when our loved ones complain about our behaviour. Sometimes this is because we hear “You always do that wrong”. But what was actually said was a specific complaint about a specific situation.

If exhaustion and criticism increase pessimism, what increases optimism? You are likely already doing some of the basic steps. When you are caring and affectionate, your children develop trust in the world. This makes them more hopeful. When you let your children learn from mistakes, your children believe they can overcome challenges. These beliefs both lead to optimism. And when you model optimism, you are spreading it. Optimism is contagious just like the other emotions.

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