This picture is often used to start a discussion. Is the glass half empty or half full? Is it both? What’s your gut tell you and does this really reveal anything about your personality?
You might know someone (or be someone) who people often notice for their positive take on situations. When something goes wrong, they deal with it in a constructive way and move on. When something goes right, they embrace it and enjoy their well-deserved happiness.
Our outlook impacts the way we rationalise what creates or influences events in our lives and impacts our expectations for the future. While we may have a tendency to be naturally more of an optimist or a pessimist – we’re not defined by those labels. Often an optimistic or pessimistic outlook depends on the situation.
Optimists are more likely to explain negative events as being caused by something or someone other than themselves and, more importantly, to view the event as temporary and specific to that particular situation. Studies suggest that optimism is an important part in building personal resilience and happiness. People who are optimistic often experience higher levels of psychological and physical well-being.
- Increased experiences of good moods/positive emotions
- Experience less stress than pessimists when facing life challenges
- More likely to have active constructive coping mechanisms
- Higher mental and physical well-being
Two different theories of optimism are dispositional optimism and explanatory style.
Dispositional optimism sees optimism as a personality trait. Optimists are those that predict or expect future positive outcomes and have confidence that they can achieve their goals. This expectation for likely positive future outcomes and feeling of confidence encourages optimists to persevere with their goals when times are hard and remain motivated to continue.
Explanatory style presents optimism as a learned skill – something we can all improve and develop through the process of identifying our automatic beliefs and understanding the impact they have on our thoughts and behaviour. Pessimistic thoughts can be challenged and reframed using a process similar to cognitive behavioural therapy. Seligman (2006) developed the ‘ABCDE’ model below as a guide to help people better understand/change how they react to negative experiences:
- Adversity – the event that causes stress
- Belief – how we understand the event
- Consequence – the thoughts/behaviour that come from the above
- Disputation – actively looking for evidence to challenge negative thoughts
- Energising – the outcome when we successfully change our thoughts and behaviours to become more positive
Is Optimism Always a Good Thing?
Unrealistic optimism or wishful thinking can be detrimental e.g risks may be viewed as lower than average for life events such as disease, divorce, burglary, attack etc. which could lead to people being unprepared if such things happened.
Some studies show that defensive pessimism, the tendency to imagine and plan for the worst-case scenario by setting low expectations, can reduce the impact of failure, encourage reflection and motivate people to find solutions. This suggests that pessimism should not be viewed as purely negative outlook – it may be a useful tool for some people, especially when they are anxious about a particular event.
Three Ways to Improve Your Optimism
If you’d like to enhance your optimistic outlook you could try one of the suggestions below…
- ‘Big picture’ thinking – next time you face a setback, take a step back and think ‘will this matter tomorrow/next week/next month’ etc. Try not to catastrophise events.
- Set a small personal goal, start to work towards it and celebrate your successes along the way. A sense of achievement will increase your confidence and feelings of efficacy.
- Try the ‘Best Possible Self’ exercise – this involves imagining/writing about yourself in the near future, living a life where things have gone how you always hoped. Think about all aspects of life e.g. work, relationships, hobbies, family etc. and use as much detail as you can.
Which theory of optimism do you relate to? Can you identify clear optimistic or pessimistic tendencies in yourself? If you’ve any practices you find work to increase your optimism that you’d like to share, pop them below for others to try.
Thanks for reading!
Norem, J.K., Chang, E.C. (2002). The positive psychology of negative thinking. Journal of Clinical Psychology 58(9), 993-1001.
Norem, J.K., Cantor, N. (1986). Defensive Pessimism: harnessing anxiety as motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51: 1208-1217
Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (2009). Optimism. In S. Lopez (ed.) Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology (pp. 656-663). Chichester: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Seligman, M. E. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. Vintage.
Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 73-82.