The benefits of optimism

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 3 of The Year of Happy‘s month on optimism. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

Do optimists have such high expectations that they’re constantly disappointed? Do they think so positively that they just sit back and wait for the universe to deliver the goods? Do they take more risks and get hurt because they believe everything will turn out okay?

That may be the common conception of optimism, but it’s not what the research on healthy optimism shows. Here’s what you can expect as you begin to become more optimistic:

1. More happiness

As expected, optimists report being happier in life. But what is the mechanism here?

As the University College London’s Tali Sharot explains, optimistic people are happier because they imagine positive events more vividly and expect them to occur sooner. This all boosts the luscious feeling of anticipation, which is greater the more pleasurable the anticipated event, the more vividly we can imagine it, the more probable we think it is to happen, and the sooner it will be happening. Of course, it makes sense that having a sense of hope and positive attitude about the future would make us more content in the present.

2. More positive emotions and better relationships

Optimists have a more positive mood and morale, more vitality, a sense of mastery, and high self-regard. They feel in control of their destiny. All that positivity must radiate outward, because optimists tend to be better liked by others, too.

3. Fewer negative emotions

Optimists experience less depression and anxiety, and optimistic explanatory style can alleviate depression and help prevent relapses. According to psychologist Martin Seligman, depression is often accompanied by a pessimistic explanatory style: we tend to blame ourselves for misfortune, believe it’s permanent, and believe it affects all areas of life. Depressed people also exhibit learned helplessness, the feeling that they’re not in control of their lives (which leads to passivity). In contrast, optimism brings a sense of agency and confidence, and with it less despair and hopelessness.

4. Better health

Optimists are physically healthier. In the famous Grant Study, a longitudinal study of male Harvard students from the classes of 1939-1944, optimism began predicting health starting at age 45. In another famous study, this time of Catholic nuns, optimistic nuns outlived negative ones by about 10 years.

Different mechanisms are at work here, some physical and others behavior-oriented. Optimistic explanatory style boosts our immune system, protecting us from infectious diseases and decreasing the likelihood of breast cancer relapse. Pessimistic people have twice as many infectious illnesses and twice as many doctor visits. But even these physical changes may have their roots in the increased social support that optimists enjoy.

On the behavior side, studies have shown that optimists live longer and are less likely to die from accidental or violent events because they take active steps to protect themselves. Critiques of optimism call it complacent or unrealistic, but the optimism we’re talking about here stems from being proactive and trying to ensure things turn out according to our positive expectations. The optimist is the one who is brave enough to ride in a car but does wear a seatbelt.

In contrast, pessimism works like the “nocebo effect,” the opposite of the placebo effect. People who are pessimistic and believe they’re prone to disease or bound to get worse actually are and do. In the talk below, Dr. Allan Hamilton describes optimism’s effects on heart disease, HIV, and cancer and how the medical industry – himself included – is conspiring to snuff out hope:

5. Better coping

Optimists cope better with stress and take more direct action in the face of adversity. When something bad happens, their habitually positive habits of thinking kick in and they look for ways the situation isn’t as bad as they thought and things will get better. “Optimism and hope relate to how we think and feel about the future. If we really do believe that things will work out for the best, all the setbacks become easier to deal with,” writes Fox.

Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1991, and his life took a different turn. He took a long break from his acting career, started the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and – most of all – didn’t let the diagnosis shake his positive outlook on the world. His second book, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, came out in 2009. Here, he discusses his optimism with TV show host Ellen Degeneres:

Musician Besa Luzha is another example of optimistic coping. Enduring the Kosovo War and living in a refugee camp, she managed to see the positive in the challenges and remain hopeful, she explains:

6. Better performance

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope,” writes Helen Keller in Optimism: An Essay.

Because of their attitude, optimists are more likely to exert effort toward their goals and persist in the face of obstacles. When optimists expect something great and don’t achieve it, their brain’s frontal lobe goes to work figuring out why and learning for the future. If we don’t expect greatness, this doesn’t happen. “Hope . . . enables people to embrace their goals and stay committed to moving toward them,” Sharot writes.

That’s the key combination: commitment plus tenacity. One study, for example, found that optimists are less likely to drop out of college because they’re more motivated and less distressed. Research by Suzanne Segerstrom has shown that part of the key to optimism’s benefits is how persistent it makes us. Her view and some of her studies are discussed in this article:

Read “The Optimism Revolution”

Martin Seligman’s research has shown that people with an optimistic explanatory style are more productive than their pessimistic peers, persisting through obstacles and making up for any deficits of intelligence or skill. Sports teams with an optimistic explanatory style tend to improve year-to-year, and optimistic athletes perform better, particularly in crunch time. Politicians with an optimistic explanatory style tend to win elections – in 1998, explanatory style correctly predicted all the US primaries and 25 out of 29 Senate seats. Was it Barack Obama’s message of “hope” – closely related to optimism – that won him the presidency?

Seligman also found that the most optimistic 10% of insurance salesmen sell 88% more than the most pessimistic 10% and are much less likely to quit. Optimism comes in handy in the face of failure and defeat, urging athletes and businessmen to keep going. “Optimistic explanatory style is the key to persistence,” he writes. 

Case in point: humorist Guy Browning. In this funny tale, he explains how “outrageous optimism” – and the persistence it gave him and his community – helped him create and screen a film in one of London’s most prestigious locations:

A good way to end this week is with a TEDx talk by Bert Jacobs, the cofounder of Life Is Good. In this funny and touching video, he talks about the origins of their positive brand and how optimism helped them build a $100 million business:

Why do you want to become more optimistic? What benefits do you expect to see? Join the discussion on Facebook.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 2: How to cultivate optimism

Move on to Week 4: When optimism is hard, try this

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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