Optimism is Key to Achievement, Better Health and Life Satisfaction
Updated: Apr 18, 2020
“Optimism is essential to achievement and it is also the foundation of courage and true progress.” – Nicholas M. Butler
Optimism is the attitude and our general expectation of positive things happening in the future; rather than assuming that negative experiences, events or outcomes are ahead.
Seen as a fundamental or core part of the personality, optimists tend to approach most aspects of their lives: from relationships and career, to finances and their health, in a way that increases the chances of success and happiness.
Study after study has confirmed that thinking optimistically empowers our lives and enables us to more effectively deal with difficulties. Not about avoiding or denying life’s real, negative parts, being optimistic is rather about accepting circumstances while regarding them in the best possible way. It’s a faith that despite the current situation, things will turn out well.
“What is hope but a feeling of optimism, a thought that says things will improve, it won’t always be bleak [and] there’s a way to rise above the present circumstances.” – Dr. Wayne Dyer
Optimism’s partner: hope
According to a leading psychologist in the field, C.R. Snyder, while related to optimism, hope is distinctly different. While optimism is the general expectation that good things will happen, he defined hope as more goal-specific and related to one’s own efforts in framing a successful future.
According to Snyder, hope is made up of three parts: our goals themselves; agency or the belief that we are empowered to shape our lives and have the motivation and energy to do what it takes to accomplish our goals; and finally, pathways: the planning and action necessary to get from here to there.
Work better together
Research shows that optimism and hope are used both independently and hand-in-hand.
Wherever you draw the line between the two, being optimistic and hopeful requires that we see negative events in life as changeable, malleable; and that we have power to affect change in our own lives for the better.
In severe opposition, is the pessimist: a helpless victim, with little hope or plan of changing current circumstances. The saddest part of being negative and expecting the worst is that it’s self-sabotage. It is difficult to affect change in your life when your own thoughts and words are working against you.
“It’s a sad day when you find out that it’s not accident or time or fortune but just yourself that kept things from you.” – Lillian Hellman
Researchers measure optimism in a couple of ways: explanatory style and dispositional.
Optimist expert Martin Seligman, has shown that how we explain events in our lives is a fundamental way we exhibit our levels of positivity or negativity.
Those with an optimistic explanatory style tend to give themselves credit for positive events and assume good things will happen in many areas of life. Pessimists instead blame themselves when bad things happen, assume negative things will continue and see negative events as pervasive rather than being limited in scope and something that can be overcome.
Another way optimism is measured is dispositional: are the general expectations for the future positive or negative? Developed in 1985, researchers use the Life Orientation Test to gauge one’s general level of optimism or pessimism about life and the future.
From achievement, successful relationships and life satisfaction; to our physical and mental health and longevity, there is a lot of upside to seeing the upside.
“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” – Helen Keller
Optimism fuels our performance
Much research has confirmed the obvious: being optimistic plays a great role in both academic and professional achievement. By thinking positively, we are able to dream, plan and attain our goals. It allows us to take action where others will not and see opportunities where others cannot.
A big part of any goal begins with the conviction that success is possible. You can have the best plan in the world but it’s critical to start with believing you can accomplish what you set out to do. Optimists tend to be confident in their abilities to achieve their goals.
“If you don’t have hope, you’re defeated before you start. And hope is a form of planning…we have to be conscious of the possibility of change in order to pursue it.” – Gloria Steinem
Research shows that the more positive the athlete or sports team, the better performance. Charles Carver et al (2010) found that college students who are optimistic are both less likely to drop out, they also go on to earn higher incomes later.
Optimism feeds on itself and fuels our efforts, allowing us to persevere and not give up when times are tough.
Optimism promotes mental well-being and resilience
Optimism has also been shown to play a significant role in how well we cope with difficulties in life.
Optimists tend to be less stressed and anxious and have better resilience and coping abilities. They tend to see setbacks as temporary and something to learn from; are more likely to problem-solve and take action; and focus on positive rather than negative aspects of obstacles.
All of this feeds into optimism being a protector of sorts. Elizabeth Hopper (2017) found that optimists with stressful lives: from college students to new moms to the caregivers of Alzheimer’s and cancer patients - are simply better able to cope. They have lower levels of stress, and distress, compared to those without a positive outlook.
Other research found that 12 weeks of optimism training was more effective, and longer-lasting, in treating clinically depressed patients than medication.
Optimists are healthier and live longer
Beyond the mental and emotional implications, optimism has proven itself an elixir with a long list of physical benefits, including living longer.
Multiple studies have confirmed optimism’s role in healthier immune systems, and in helping people recover from illness and heal faster from surgery. A positive outlook has also shown to help inhibit the development of substance abuse problems and help addicted people quit.
If your health is important to you, the list goes on.
Optimists are not only able to handle cancer and other potentially-fatal diagnoses better than pessimists, expecting positive things has actually shown to defend against developing chronic diseases.
One 2000 study found that optimism significantly reduced the chance of early death among medical patients over pessimistic and even mixed attitudes. Both men and women with greater optimism live longer than their pessimistic counterparts.
Feeds on itself
Of course, it makes sense that individuals who feel positive about their futures are more likely to care for themselves better today. The pessimists are not the ones showing up at the gym. Regardless of how we get there, optimism may well be a key contributor to our physical health.
Enthusiasm and positivity can have far-reaching effects on our physical and mental health. Being hopeful and anticipating a positive future helps people cope, increases longevity and increases our chances of success in life.
Optimism benefits our self-esteem, relationships and well-being
Bastianello et al. (2014) found that higher levels of optimism lead to greater self-esteem, which in turn led to more satisfaction with life. Optimists are happier and tend to have more rewarding and successful personal relationships.
Optimistic people tend to perceive greater support from, and better conflict resolution within their relationships. According to the 2018 Life is Good Optimism and Positivity Survey, the 44% of respondents that were more optimistic than 5 years ago attribute the increased positivity to their strong relationships.
“Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.” – William James
85% of Americans, according to the 2018 study, consider themselves optimistic. The research also drilled down on details about what sets the optimistic person apart:
Turns out that older people and those with higher education tend to be more optimistic than younger or the less-educated. I assume they controlled for the obvious socioeconomic elephant sitting in the room.
Additionally, people who exercise regularly and those who spend less time in front of a screen are more optimistic than their less active and screen-addicted, bingeing counterparts. Finally, a whopping 90% of optimistic respondents noted that time with friends and family, presumably in real life, is a top pastime.
The roots of optimism
Not surprisingly, whether one tends towards optimism or pessimism, the origin may stem from our childhoods. As children, our environments are filled with some sort of energy. That environment can be positive and loving or it can be filled with chaos and dysfunction. Either play a strong role in who we become and how we feel about life.
How we grow up informs whether we default to positive or negative. But not entirely.
Our levels of hope or optimism are part nature and part nurture. Research shows that about 25% of optimism or pessimism is inherited. Hard-coded. Other factors affect our outlook on life but can be outside of our control, like socioeconomic status.
But there is good news. In all his research, Seligman found that although we do have a natural disposition, optimism is trainable and can be learned.
The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) was designed for teachers and school counselors to “psychologically immunize” children with doses of optimism in hopes of defending them from future depression. It turns out that young people can indeed be trained to be optimistic, serving an important protective function later on.
“A happy soul is the best shield for a cruel world.” - Atticus
Even for us jaded adults, optimism is a habit that we can train our brains.
If we stop and turn our attention to something positive enough times, we can actually make it our new default. For the effort, the list of benefits we can gain is long. Science says so.
Nowadays it’s not easy. It’s tough out there and getting tougher all the time. Our own levels of hope and optimism can be our greatest advantage.
“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” – Noam Chomsky
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