Optimism

Defined

The perspectives we hold about ourselves and the world around us shape the thoughts we bring to mind and consider. Those thoughts go on to influence our emotions, behavior, lifestyle choices, important relationships, and our overall quality of life (Seligman, 2006). 

When we are challenged, defeated in some way, make mistakes, or fail - we evaluate the causes based on three qualities (Seligman, 2006).

  • Permanence - How long will it take to resolve the problem?
  • Pervasiveness - How vast of an impact does the problem have on different areas of life?
  • Personalization - Are we, or are others, responsible for the causes of the problem?

An optimistic perspective encourages us to see our problems as temporary, confined to one area of life, and as not entirely our fault. From this perspective, we see obstacles as challenges and recognize ways we can alter our efforts to better accomplish our goals (Seligman, 2006). 

Optimistic people protect their emotional state by holding a generally favorable set of expectations for their future. They imagine the positive potential outcomes of events, and consider that good things can happen to them. When focused on the potential good, we can reduce the time we spend worried or anxious about the future (Carver, 2010)

Optimism is associated with higher levels of income and education, better mental and physical health, and stronger interpersonal relationships. It enhances confidence, resilience and persistence during stressful life events (Carver, 2010). It is known to enhance immune responses and motivate us to make informed decisions about our overall health - improving related outcomes (Seligman, 2006). 

Cultivating Optimism

At the foundation of optimism is a belief in our personal capacity to influence others and our environment. Accepting that we have a level of control means acknowledging that we choose our values and activities, we choose who we interact with and where/when, and we choose how we earn income. While the world is changing around us, we use an internal locus of control to see that the outcomes of our actions are, at least in part, the results of our own ability (Seligman, 2006). For more information on power and control, click here.

We can use goal setting as a tool to imagine our own optimistic future. Short-term goals should be achievable within six months, long term goals may take years, and lifetime goals involve how we see ourselves aging and the type of person we hope to become (Rosselló, 2007). The most effective goals are described as SMART. Let's consider the following when setting our goals (SAMHSA, 2021):

  • Specific - Who will be involved? Where and when will it take place? What materials are needed?
  • Measurable - How do we know when the goal is accomplished?
  • Attainable - Can it realistically be done?
  • Relevant - Does this goal align with my larger efforts?
  • Time Constrained - How long will it take to complete?

Try to write at least two short term, two long term, and two life time goals  this week.

Optimism is a combination of learning how to talk to ourselves when things go poorly (short term, not personal, contained) and recognizing when events go well (Seligman, 2006). Take time to identify and recognize what we are doing right in the different areas of our life. Make an effort to celebrate small victories, make an upcoming celebration special, or surprise someone else with recognition.

Consider using optimism as a tool when resolving conflict within important personal relationships. Work to be a good listener, not be critical of others, and attempt to understand other points of view. When we use these skills, our loved ones see us as more supportive. This facilitates conflict resolution and improves our own, and significant others', perspective on the future of the relationship (Carver, 2010). For more information on productive communication strategies, click here.

When we work to change our negative thoughts about ourselves and the world, we free up our mental processes to become more optimistic (Carver, 2010). For more information on how cognitive behavioral therapy can help, click here.

Consider enforcing a rule of ‘No Negative Thinking’. Here we attempt to reject any negative thought that comes up as soon as possible. Try to ignore the thought or neutralize it by considering a positive aspect of something related to the thought or our current environment. Use a short affirmation to strengthen a commitment to this rule each time distracting thinking occurs (Seligman, 2006).

Setbacks to Optimism

Pessimism presents the ideas that suffering is permanent, will undermine everything around it, and that our suffering is our entirely our own fault. When pessimistic, we may more easily recognize long term consequences and their impact on multiple areas of life. We may also take on more personal responsibility than is reasonable or beneficial to group cohesion. Pessimistic habits of thinking can grow small setbacks into disasters, cause us to give up more easily, seed doubt and hesitation, and both worsen and cause depression (Seligman, 2006). 

The idea that our efforts do not matter can cause us to quit or give up. We may have failed before, and think each future attempt will have that same outcome. Overestimating our helplessness leads other forces to take control of our future and shape it in the way that works best for them (Seligman, 2006). For help with feelings of loss of control over self and environment, click here.