Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Learned optimism

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Is it good to be optimistic? How can we learn to be more optimistic?

Optimism refers to the tendency to expect desirable events in the future and to “look on the bright side” of situations (Forgeard & Seligman, 2012). In contrast, pessimism is the tendency to see the worst in situations, and expect negative or unpleasant events in the future (Forgeard & Seligman, 2012). Over the years, research has found that optimists and pessimists differ in several ways which have a big impact on their lives. They differ in how they approach problems and challenges, and how they perceive and react to the world and themselves. Some people may simply be born with the expectation that good things will be plentiful, but research also suggests that we can all learn how to be more optimistic.

What is optimism?[edit]

Optimism as human nature[edit]

One approach to optimism regards it as a natural aspect of human nature. A large body of research shows not only that most people hold overly positive evaluations of themselves, but that this is particularly characteristic of psychologically healthy individuals (Peterson, 2000). Most of us tend to remember more positive information about ourselves, take responsibility for more positive events than negative events, and judge positive attributes to be considerably more characteristic of ourselves than negative attributes (Taylor & Brown, 1988). Taylor and Brown (1988) found that the only individuals who do not show this positivity are those who are depressed or anxious. This is referred to as the Optimism bias.

Although the majority of us show this optimistic bias, researchers distinguish between realistic and unrealistic optimism. If there is sufficient reason to think that good things will happen in the future, we can be realistically optimistic (Forgeard & Seligman, 2012). Yet we can have an optimistic yet unrealistic view of the future if we believe things will go well when evidence suggest otherwise (Forgeard & Seligman, 2012). For example, most people underestimate their risks when asked to estimate the likelihood that they will someday experience an illness or injury (Dillard, McCaul & Klein, 2006).

Dispositional Optimism[edit]

Optimism can also be considered as a characteristic people possess to varying degrees. This is compatible with the human-nature approach to optimism - our human nature provides a baseline of optimism, of which we can show more or less (Forgeard & Seligman, 2012). The dispositional optimism approach defines optimism as a personality trait whereby one has a generalized expectancy for positive outcomes in the future (Carver, Scheier & Segerstrom, 2010). This approach to optimism first arose in relation to Self-regulatory theory, which views all of human behaviour as revolving around the identification and attainment of goals (Peterson, 2000). According to Scheier and Carver (1992), optimism and pessimism are broad, generalized versions of confidence and doubt relating to life, rather than to just a specific context. To read about how dispositional optimism is measured, visit the measuring optimism subpage.

Optimism as attributional style[edit]

Weiner's (1985) Attribution model

Another way in which optimism has been conceptualized and measured is using the attributional style approach, where optimism is considered in terms of how we explain the causes of good and bad events. It was inspired the phenomenon of learned helplessness - Seligman and colleagues' (1995; as cited by Peterson, 2000) finding that most people become persistently helpless when consistently exposed to uncontrollable negative events. Seligman went on to investigate why some people never become helpless by examining how we make judgments about the causes of events, referred to as a person’s attributional or explanatory style. Every attribution we make varies along several dimensions:

  • Internal vs external locus of control: we can see events as either caused by our own actions, or caused by uncontrollable environmental factors
  • Stability vs instability: we can see these factors as either stable and consistent over time, or unstable and varying; and
  • Specific vs. global: we can see these causal factors as either limited to one context, or applying across a range of situations.

Researchers have shown that the way people explain events can develop into lifelong explanatory styles (Gerrig et al, 2009). Seligman found that the degree of optimism or pessimism in people’s explanatory styles has a large influence on motivation, mood, and performance ability.

Individuals with optimistic attributional styles tend to see failure as the result of external causes (I failed the maths test because it was unfair) and of events that are specific (this one setback won’t affect my other subject scores) and unstable or modifiable (I will try harder next time). In contrast, individuals with pessimistic attributional styles tend to see failure as generated by internal, stable and global causes (I failed because I am stupid – I will never get any better and it will affect everything I attempt). The explanations are reversed when it comes to success; optimists take full internal-stable-global credit for success, while pessimists attribute their success to external-unstable-specific factors (Gerrig et al, 2009). To find out how explanatory style is measured, visit the measuring optimism subpage.

Optimism vs. Pessimism[edit]

Lastly, when we are considering the definition of optimism, we must consider its relationship with pessimism. Although they are usually regarded as mutually exclusive, evidence suggests they may not be. For example, the optimism and pessimism items in the LOT-R have shown to be moderately independent of one another (Peterson, 2000). Although this may simply reflect validity problems in the questionnaire, it is possible that some people expect both good things and bad things to be plentiful (Peterson, 2000). This leads to the question of whether the presence of optimism has more important effects than the absence of pessimism. This subject of the effects of optimism is where we turn to next.

The benefits of optimism[edit]

Subjective Wellbeing[edit]

When people confront difficult situations, they experience a range of positive and negative emotions. A large body of research supports that optimistic people typically report less distress and more wellbeing across a broad range of situations. Longitudinal research supports the importance of optimism in well-being. Daukantaite and Bergman (2005) studied the data of 248 women taken from a 30-year Swedish longitudinal research program. Adolescent girls with more optimistic attitudes were found to have more satisfaction with their lives, and more positive affect and less negative affect by age 43. The effect of optimism on positive affect was stronger than its effect on life satisfaction. This suggests that optimists develop more positive feelings, and that they use these feelings as a source of information for evaluating how satisfied they are (Daukantaite & Bergman, 2005). Optimism was also found to be a stable factor throughout life, with optimistic attitudes in adolescence persisting into adulthood. Overall, optimism was more important for wellbeing than any other early-life factors, such as school satisfaction, intelligence, or upbringing conditions.


Optimism also makes us resilient, leading to higher levels of subjective wellbeing in the face of stressful or aversive events. In 2005, Tindle and colleagues found 163 women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and whose psychological wellbeing had previously been assessed 5 - 13 years earlier. The women's initial reports of optimism were strong predictors of wellbeing at the follow-up; with optimism significantly related to higher quality of life ratings, and lower ratings of distress, depression, and social disruption. Similarly, another study found that optimism buffered women against distress in the face of in vitro fertilization (IVF) failure (Litt et al, 1992). 36 out of the 41 women studied failed to conceive as a result of IVF, 6 of which developed clinical depressive symptoms. While both optimistic and pessimistic women saw their goal of having a child as equally attainable, women with dispositional optimism showed significantly lower distress after the IVF failure.

Research suggests that optimistic individuals tend to fare better in aversive or stressful experiences because they tend to use more effective coping strategies. The various types of coping strategies identified by researchers are outlined below:

Optimism appears to be a major determinant of approach coping (Scheier & Carver, 1985). In a meta-analytic review of 50 studies by Nes and Segerstrom (2006), optimism was found to be strongly associated with active approach- and problem-focused coping, and negatively associated with avoidance coping strategies. Optimistic individuals tend to increase effort to overcome obstacles, and report being more conscientious when confronting stressful events, especially when they perceive them to be controllable (Carver, Seheier & Weintraub, 1989). When an event is uncontrollable, optimistic individuals tend to use emotion-focussed coping to positively reinterpret, accept, and learn from the situation (Scheier & Carver, 1992). In contrast, pessimists tend to use avoidance coping to lessen their awareness of the problem at hand (Scheier & Carver, 1992). For example, pessimists tend to use denial, substance abuse, and are more prone to give up under adversity (Carver, Seheier & Weintraub, 1989).


Because optimists tend to use approach problem-focussed coping strategies, they experience better health in addition to more wellbeing. As mentioned, Gallagher, Lopez and Pressman’s (2013) global-scale study found that optimistic people tended to have better perceived physical health along with higher subjective wellbeing. That is, optimistic people tended to be more satisfied with their personal health, had less physical pain the day prior to the survey, and felt they had fewer daily hassles related to health problems.

Unrealistic optimism is associated with less motivation to quit cigarette smoking

There is wide evidence that optimistic people’s perceptions of better health are usually grounded in reality. In 2009, Tindle and colleagues found optimism is also associated with better cardiovascular functioning and reduced cardiovascular disease. Over 8 years, the researchers followed over 97,000 women from the Women’s Health Initiative who were free of cancer and cardiovascular disease at the start of the study. Compared with pessimistic women, optimistic women were found to have substantially lower rates of coronary heart disease (CHD), death related to CHD and cancer, and total mortality (after adjusting for age). Similarly, Kubzansky and colleagues (2001) found a relationship between high levels of optimism and reduced coronary heart disease in a longitudinal study of 1306 older men. Initial optimism was associated with a 25% decreased risk of CHD ten years later. Giltay and colleagues (2004) also found a link between increased longevity and optimism when they followed 941 elderly Dutch participants for over 9 years. Compared with highly pessimistic participants, highly optimistic participants were almost half as likely to die of all causes during the course of the study (controlling for other major risk factors such as age, smoking, or blood pressure). Reduced cardiovascular mortality was especially associated with optimism. Furthermore, levels of optimism and physical health were the only factors associated with increased longevity. Additionally, optimism has been associated with faster recovery from coronary bypass surgery (Scheier et al., 1999), and slower development of atherosclerosis and AIDS (Matthews et al., 2004).

Despite these benefits of optimism, when it is unrealistic, it can lead to health-endangering behaviours and poor health outcomes. For example, in a series of studies by Davidson and Prkachin (1997), those high in unrealistic optimism showed the largest decrease in their reports of exercise across 6 weeks, and the smallest increase in CHD prevention knowledge after attending a CHD prevention lecture. Despite this, a recent meta-analysis of 83 studies showed that optimism had a significant and positive effect on health overall (Rasmussen, Scheier & Greenhouse, 2009), supporting that realistic optimism is related to more positive health outcomes.


In addition to being happier and healthier, optimists may also be more successful than average, especially in jobs in which one frequently encounters failure. One study in the United Kingdom measured the attributional styles of 130 insurance salespeople, and found that those with more optimistic styles had higher sales and were higher rankings as better salesmen than those with more pessimistic attributional styles (Corr & Gray, 1996). Similar results were found in Seligman and Schulman’s (1986) study of salesmen in an insurance call center – with more optimistic salesmen selling more life insurance than less optimistic ones, and also being half as likely to quit their jobs. Moreover, a study investigating the psychological characteristics of ten Olympic gold medallists found that such athletes tend to have high levels of optimism, hope, and the ability to cope with anxiety (Gould, Dieffenbach, & Moffett, 2002).

Unrealistic optimism has an interesting relationship with success. Research suggests that many highly successful people, such as business executives and entrepreneurs, are high on unrealistic optimism (Hmieleski & Baron, 2009). For example, Cooper, Woo and Dunkelberg (1988) found that 81% of all entrepreneurs believe their chance of success to be 70% or above, while in actuality 66% of businesses fail within the first 4 years. As we’ve discussed, this unrealistic optimism can often have negative consequences. For exmaple, Åstebro, Jeffrey, and Adomdza (2007) examined the characteristics of inventors who had received advice from highly credible sources to cease their efforts. Inventors with higher levels of optimism were more likely to continue spending time and money after receiving advice to stop activity. This is because optimists expected higher returns on their inventions, and thus placed more value on continuing with the project, and paid less attention to advice that among them to break their behaviour. Despite this, research indicates that unrealistic optimism may actually be beneficial when used in the service of higher efforts and standards (Peterson, 2000). Click here to read about the Potential benefits of unrealistic optimism in the subpage.

In sum, evidence suggests that optimists enjoy more subjective wellbeing and success, cope better with adversity, and have improved physical health. It leads individuals to actively solve problems and persist after momentary setbacks – thus, increasing their chances of being successful in the long run. And even while unrealistic optimism may lead to make bad decisions or neglect taking preventative measures, even it can sometimes help motivate individuals to setting and achieving higher standards. However, even though optimism is almost certainly a good thing, we are not all born equally optimistic. Luckily, evidence suggests that perhaps we can learn to be...

How can you become more optimistic?[edit]

Therapy options[edit]

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy[edit]

In CBT, individuals are encouraged to examine how their beliefs and feelings effect the way they perceive the world around them in order to develop a more optimistic outlook

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is a set of techniques that has been used to transform pessimists into optimists. Individuals suffering from pessimism and depression often display highly distorted and negative interpretations of the situations they encounter, which fosters negative emotions and lack of motivation (Forgeard & Seligman, 2012). CBT aims to help such individuals to identify dysfunctional thoughts and make them more positive and constructive by adopting a more optimistic attributional style (Carver, Scheier & Segerstrom, 2010).

Amirsoleyman, Hasanzadeh and Ebrahimi (2013) found that traditional CBT was effective in increasing optimism in a sample of 30 male students. Half the students received six sessions of CBT, and showed a significant increase in optimism based on their ASQ scores, compared with the other half who received no treatment. However, in Pretzer and Walsh’s (2001) study, almost half of the depressed individuals who were treated with 16 weekly CBT sessions showed no improvement. Participants who were high on the scale of "demoralisation", felt they had such little control over their future that any efforts at change were pointless. These participants responded particularly poorly to CBT, indicating that the treatment had failed to improve their dysfunctional beliefs about the future and their ability to control it. Riskind, Sarampote and Mercier (1996) argued that the reason for these unimpressive results is that traditional CBT is mostly aimed at reducing pessimistic thoughts, rather than actually enhancing optimistic thoughts. As we know, reduction of pessimism is not necessarily the development of optimism (Carver, Scheier & Segerstrom, 2010).

Consequently, Riskind and colleagues (1996) took the general principles of CBT and developed a specialised intervention called “optimism training”, which is designed to deal with optimism-suppressing beliefs and enhance positive thinking and imagery. In a study of 83 college students optimism training resulted in considerably higher levels of optimistic attributions and positive self-statements (Riskind et al, 1996). CBT only moderately increased problem-solving self-efficacy, and cognitive priming(which involved keeping a diary of negative daily events) and progressive relaxation had no effects. While these findings are promising, their generalizability is severely limited by the fact that these studies have only been conducted with college undergraduates and have not yet been replicated (Peterson, 2000).

Seligman's resiliency program[edit]

Seligman also developed a 12-session curriculum called the Penn Resiliency Program to help adolescents develop optimism by understanding the link between thoughts and feelings, and adopting more constructive beliefs in difficult situations. Using cartoons, hypothetical examples, and role-plays, the PENN also teaches them resilience and social problem-solving skills. For example, in one session a participant, who may believe that they lost a tennis game because they are unskilled, would be encouraged to evaluate the evidence and to generate more optimistic explanations, such as a lack of practice or an particularly talented opponent.

Yu and Seligman (2002) selected 220 Chinese children who showed depressive symptoms and family conflict, and randomly assigned them to either a school-based Chinese version of the PENN program or a no-treatment group. Immediately after the treatment, and at the 3- and 6- month follow ups, children who participated in the program showed significantly fewer depressive symptoms. A more optimistic explanatory style was found to mediate the prevention of depressive symptoms. While several studies have also found support for the use of the PENN program (Gillham et al, 1995; Cardemil, Reivich & Seligman, 2002), at least four studies found no significant effects (Brunwasser, Gillham & Kim, 2009). In response to this mixed evidence, Brunwasser and colleagues (2009) analysed the results of 17 studies in a meta-analysis and found that overall PENN participants report fewer depressive symptoms post-intervention compared with youths receiving no intervention. However, there was no evidence that the PENN program is superior to treatments that do not have a CBT component. According to Brunwasser and colleagues (2009), future research should investigate if and how these alternative treatments produce different, but equally beneficial, effects to the Penn Program. The problem with research on the PENN program is similar to that of research on CBT - it is unclear whether these treatments help the individual develop optimism, or whether they merely return the person to a non-depressed mode. Peterson (2000) also comments that very little studies have looked at the effect of these treatments on non-depressed “normal” individuals.

Do it yourself: A few take-home tips![edit]

Fortunately, we do not necessarily need therapy to become more optimistic. We can apply many basic principles within the optimism literature to our daily lives. Here are some simple tips that you can start using today:

1. Do your ABCs (And Ds and Es)[edit]

Visualizing your goals can increase motivation

When you encounter a difficult situation, go through your ABCs. One of the most basic frameworks in Rationale Emotive Behaviour Therapy is Albert Ellis's model of Adversity, belief and consequence (ABC)(1992; as cited by Forgeard & Seligman, 2012):

  • Activating event - what has happened
  • Belief - how the event is interpreted
  • Consequences - the feelings and actions resulting from the beliefs

For example, if you're partner decides to end your relationship (activating event), you may think "I am not good enough, it's no wonder no one wants me" (belief), and feel overcome with hopelessness and loneliness (consequence). This is an extreme example, and sometimes these thoughts are so automatic that we don’t even notice them. But if we think about our negative beliefs, we can dispute them. This is where Seligman (1999) added to Ellis's model, making a new ABCDE model:

  • Disputation - finding counter-evidence to our negative beliefs or feelings
  • Energization - successful disputation leads to feeling energized, hopeful and positive

Back to our example - you may remind yourself that you were a happy and loved person before you met you’re partner, and will thus continue to be when they are gone (disputation). You will then celebrate the realization that you are happy and the future will be good (energerized). Try keeping a journal of your ABCDEs for a week, and see where you can become more positive in your thinking!

2. Visualize your goals[edit]

Try visualizing the things you want. The technique of positive visualization was proposed by Riskind, Sarampote and Mercier (1996) as a component of optimism-training. Imagining desirable outcomes can energize you, and direct your attention and behaviour to the goals you want (McClelland, 1967; as cited by Riskind, Sarampote and Mercier 1996). Imagining your goals can also help you target specific problems or challenges that may arise (Riskind, Sarampote & Mercier, 1996), and thus enable you to plan ahead and push yourself (much like a counteractive optimist).

3. Find the silver lining[edit]

The “silver lining technique” is another simple practice we can borrow from Riskind, Sarampote & Mercier’s optimism training. Much like it sounds, try to identify at least one good thing in a bad situation. If you can do this, then finding positive elements in the daily humdrum of life will be easier (Riskind, Sarampote & Mercier, 1996).

4. Be around optimistic people[edit]

Optimism can sometimes be the product of social learning (Peterson, 2000). For example, parents often convey their general belief systems about the world to their children (Seligman et al., 1984), which may be a part of the reason parents and their children often share similar attributional styles (Peterson, 2000). We continue to learn from those around us long after childhood. So surround yourself with people who see the positive in situations, who are energized by life, and who make you feel good.

5. Be a rationale optimist[edit]

As we have discussed, being an unrealistic optimist can be detrimental to your goals. Aim to be a realistic optimist who does not deny the inevitable criticism and pain of life, but rather, hopes that with persistence and flexibility, the good will ultimately outweigh the bad.

And to wrap up...[edit]

Over the years, an enormous amount of theories and research have been produced on the topic of optimism. From this, we have found has a range of beneficial effects in making people happier, healthier and more successful. We have also found that we can all benefit from these effects by learning to be more optimistic.

Test your knowledge![edit]

1 Optimists tend to view negative events as

the result of external, stable, and global causes
the result of external, unstable, and specific causes
the result of internal, unstable, and global causes
the result of internal, stable, and specific causes

2 After being fired from a job, an optimist would be LEAST likely to...

Use alcohol as an escape
Start looking for new employment opportunities
Take note of the areas that need improvement and start working on them
Realize that this is an opportunity for change and reflection on what they want in the future

3 As you are driving home, another driver cuts you off. Using Ellis' ABC framework, what would come under "C"?

The profanities you yell at the other driver
The driver cutting you off
The anger you feel as you think about what a rude person the driver must be

See Also[edit]


Book chapters from Improve your life: Motivation and Emotion (2013)

External links

Social Contribution[edit]

Contributed to


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