Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Optimism and depression

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Optimism and depression:
What is the relationship between optimism and depression?
Parodyfilm.svg[Replace this text with the URL Go to a 3 min. audiovisual overview of this chapter.]

Focus questions:

  • What is the relationship between optimism and depression?
  • What is dispositional optimism?
  • What theories can be applied?
  • How can these theories be applied to the real world?
  • What optimistic strategies can be applied to the treatment and prevention of depression?

Overview[edit | edit source]

The relationship between optimism and depression is complicated, they are seemingly opposite constructs that provide almost opposite views about ones experiences in life. In saying this, optimism has been used to determine the probability of depression symptoms occurring in generalised, as well as very specific situations. If we look at optimism from this perspective, it serves as a protective factor from the ramifications of major depressive symptoms, as well as unfortunate occurrences in life that are deemed stressful and life altering in a negative way. This chapter will serve as an opportunity to discover how exactly optimism influences depression through the use of relevant research, theory and case studies.

Figure 1. Smiling child

Optimism[edit | edit source]

Optimism can be defined as a disposition to hold positive expectancies for the future, having a higher inclination to hope and a tendency to believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds (See Figure 1) (Scheier & Carver, 1985; Conversano, Rotondo, Lensi, Vista, Arpone & Reda, 2019). Many believe that it stays relevantly stable over the course of ones lifetime (Scheier & Carver, 1985; Boelen, 2015; Conversano, Rotondo, Lensi, Vista, Arpone & Reda, 2019). Optimism has also been considered a learned behaviour, and in this way of thinking it is subject to change as individuals can be trained to be more optimistic in their views of their experiences in life (Zafar & Murtaza, 2018). Even though there are discrepancies whether optimism is unchanging or not, there are factors that are seen to always be associated with the subject. Optimism has been associated with better overall mental well-being, physical health, healthier coping strategies and is a strong protective factor against mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression (Carbone & Echols, 2017; Boelen, 2015; Yarcheski, Mahhon & Yaracheski, 2004). Due to the protective nature of optimism, countless studies have been completed to determine exactly what facet of optimism is the most helpful, and if there is a different answer depending on the nature of the situation being researched. Optimists are more likely to engage in healthier behaviours when faced with difficulties, and can determine whether a problem required a task focused solution or an emotional one (Carbone & Echols, 2017). We will discuss these in greater detail later in the chapter, with the assistance of theory to solidify the validity of these claims.

Figure 2. Simplified imagery of Depression

Depression[edit | edit source]

Depression is an emotion, or a state in which the individual utilises much more unhealthy and negative interpretations about themselves, as well as the world around them (see figure 2). Most people who suffer from depression take on a much more pessimistic view of life, have a strong sense of hopelessness about the future and struggle to cope with even the most minor of negative circumstances (Everaert & Joroman, 2019). One main characteristic of depression is repetitive negative thinking, this leads to poorer decision making and overall lower quality of life (Kleiman, Chiara, Lie, Jagar-Hyman, Choi & Alloy, 2017). Depression can be caused by both environmental and biological factors, or a combination of both. In this chapter, we will be focusing on the unavoidable environmental events that lead to the development of depression, and how optimistic coping strategies and other factors can lessen the negative symptoms of depression. Environmental factors that are most associated with the development of depression include natural disasters, acute or chronic illnesses and the loss of a loved one (Vollmanm, Scharloo, Langguth, Kalkouskaya & Salewski, 2014; Boelen, 2015; Carbone & Echols, 2017).

Dispositional Optimism[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Benefits of Dispositional Optimism

Dispositional Optimism refers to individuals positive expectations for their future (Carbone & Echols, 2017). This major factor of optimism has been known to have the ability to buffer stressors of life through healthier coping strategies. Dispositional optimism has been found to be an incredibly useful predictor of various mental and physical health outcomes; the most significant being depression (Kleiman, Chiara, Liu, Jagar-Hyman, Choi & Alloy, 2017; Miranda, Weierich, Khait, Jurska & Anderson, 2017). There are many benefits to dispositional dispositional optimism, a select few can be seen in Figure 3.


A cross sectional study conducted by Vollmann, Scharloo, Langguth, Kalkouskaya and Salewski (2014) aimed to determine the predictive power of dispositional optimism on depressive symptoms in Tinnitus sufferers. 118 individuals were included in the study, all of which suffered from chronic Tinnitus. The results revealed that dispositional optimism, along with specific illness representations lead to lower levels of depression. Individuals who were more openly optimistic in nature about their condition reported lower levels of depression, and less debilitating symptoms associated with chronic Tinnitus (Vollmanm, Scharloo, Langguth, Kalkouskaya & Salewski, 2014). This study coincides with previous research regarding dispositional optimism and its power to lessen both mental and physical health symptoms.


The dispositional component of optimism is a factor that is mentioned in many theories in regards to optimism and depression. Some of these theories include Appraisal theory, the Attributional style model, and the Mental Health Model.

A study conducted in the Netherlands by Boelen (2015) focused on determining the association between optimism and depression after the loss of a loved one. Optimism levels were measured at three points in time, one year after loss (T1), six months after that (T2) and then 15 months (T3). Results found that higher optimism levels at T1 was associated with lower depression symptom severity in T2 and T3. These findings indicated that optimism and a persons positive expectancies about their future has the probability to reduce the risk of the features of depression amongst people confronted will traumatic life events such as death (Boelen, 2015).

Quick Quiz 1[edit | edit source]

1 Which one of these are NOT a common characteristic of an optimistic individual?

Generalised favourable expectations for the future
Good coping strategies in times of stress
Increased depressive symptoms
Better mental and physical wellbeing

2 Maria is a 32 year old single mother of 3 living in a small two bedroom house on the outskirts of Canberra. She has been working two jobs to pay for school and babysitting for her children, that are all under the age of 12. Maria suffers from chronic back pain but swears that some days she cannot even feel it.Although Maria is in a tough spot at the moment, she is hopeful and excited about what the future is to bring for her and her family. She focuses on the positives, such as the excitement of getting to see her children grow up and get a good education.

Maria would be considered a/an:

Pessimist, She clearly does not have the most glamorous life so she must be unhappy with the world.
Optimist, she looks to the future and reports less mental and physical health symptoms. These factors can be attributed to her having high dispositional optimism.
Unsure.


Appraisal Theory[edit | edit source]

Appraisal theories view emotions as processes rather than states, meaning that they are adaptive and change through the appraisal of the environment (Moors, Ellsworth, Scherer & Frija, 2013). The environment is not the only source for appraisal, information from events and individual differences in context, history and other facets can influence change. Appraisal theories have many components, they are as follows:

  • Appraisal component - evaluations of environment and individual-environment interaction.
  • Motivational Component - action tendencies and other forms of action readiness.
  • Somatic component - Peripheral physiological response.
  • Motor Component - Expressive and instrumental component.
  • Feeling component - Subjective experience and feelings.
Figure 4. Positive Reappraisal Example

Our main focus is on the appraisal component of the theory and how it explains the relationship between optimism and depression. Positive reappraisal is a facet of appraisal that illustrates how optimistic thinking can influence negative situations that in their absence, would likely cause depression (Wong & Lim, 2008).

Positive Reappraisal[edit | edit source]

Positive reappraisal is a coping mechanism that is used by mentally reframing the meaning of stressful events to minimise its emotional impact (Everaert & Joormann, 2019; Wong & Lim, 2008). The event is changed to be seen as more positive. For example, losing ones job is a stressful event that could lead to depression. An individual who is more optimistic may reappraise the situation and think about this as a new opportunity to find a better job that they will enjoy more (see Figure 4). Garland, Gaylord and Park’s (2009) study on positive reappraisal gives the following definition:

“Positive reappraisal is a form of meaning based coping, is the adaptive process by which stressful events are reconstrued as benign, valuable or beneficial” (Garland, Gaylord & Park, 2009).

In the absence of positive reappraisal and the presence of frequent negative thinking, depressive symptoms become more likely to emerge (Everaert & Joormann, 2019). A study was conducted in the united states by Everaert and Joormann (2019) to discover how much influence optimistic thinking patterns, such as positive reappraisal, had over mental well-being and depression levels. 468 participated, with positive reappraisal being measured using the reappraisal sub scale of the cognitive regulation questionnaire, and repetitive negative thinking being measured using the Beck Depression Inventory II. The results revealed that repetitive negative thinking was more strongly connected to depressive symptoms compared to positive reappraisal. It was also found that individuals with especially low positive reappraisal were at a much higher risk for depression and anxiety disorders (Everaert & Joormann, 2019). This particular study is just one of many that determine the influence that positive reappraisal as an optimistic thinking strategy has over depressive symptoms.

Quick Quiz 2[edit | edit source]

Alexander just found out that his sister Angelica ate his gourmet sandwich that he spent all evening making to take to work tomorrow. Thinking of positive reappraisal, what is the most optimistic response?

"I will never be happy again, I may as well give up on life"
say nothing
"That is okay, I enjoy making sandwiches anyways, maybe I should ask Angelica if she would like me to make her one next time"
"No its fine Angelica, I did not want to eat that anyways, I hope you enjoyed it"


Explanatory Style Model[edit | edit source]

The main focus of explanatory theories is that individual differences play a large role in determining how individuals react and recover from events in life. There is also a major difference in determining why the event occurred in the first place (Conversano et al., 2010).

Reformulated Hopelessness Theory of Depression[edit | edit source]

According to RLHT, there are two main explanatory styles; Optimistic and Pessimistic. There are three explanations for events occurring in ones life that can determine what type of explanatory style an individual is to have (Conversano, Rotondo, Lensi, Vista, Arpone & Reda, 2010).

  • Internal vs. External – Whether or not the factors influencing the event’s outcome are seen to be globally applicable or event-specific
  • Stable vs. Unstable – the event has factors that can be changed (unstable) or seen to be temporally fixed (stable)
  • Global vs. Specific – The personal control that the individual feels like they hold for the event

An individual with an Optimistic explanatory style would see a negative event as external, unstable and specific. In other words, Optimists view negative events as due to situational and environmental factors that will not last forever, and will not affect the entirety of the individuals’ life. This leads to lower levels of depression as events are not seen as the ‘be all or end all’ of life, this is primarily due to optimists having healthier coping mechanisms and are more aware of the benefits of positive thinking than pessimists (Conversano, Rotondo, Lensi, Vista, Arpone & Reda, 2010; Kleiman, Chiara, Liu, Jagar-Hyman, Choi & Alloy, 2017).

Carbone and Echols (2017) conducted a study on the effects of optimism on recovery and mental health in specific areas of the United States after a severe tornado outbreak in 2011. Their main aim was to understand how optimism affected the recovery after the outbreak. Dispositional Optimism was a main interest of this study, as well as determining how individuals reacted to such an unavoidable catastrophe. Through telephone surveys and the life orientation test – revised, the results revealed that individuals with a more optimistic explanatory style reported a greater recovery from significant impacts of the tornados than those who had a more pessimistic explanatory style. Optimists in this situation were greatly advantaged in attributing this particular catastrophic event as external, unstable and specific (Carbone & Echols, 2017).

Aaron Beck's Cognitive Theory of Depression[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Beck's Negative Cognitive Triad

Beck’s Cognitive Theory of Depression attributes negative thoughts, which are generated by dysfunctional beliefs about self and the world, are usually the primary cause of depressive symptoms. Depressed individuals are more likely to experience negative thoughts than positive ones, which solidifies poorer mental well-being (Zafar & Murtaza, 2018). As previously discussed, optimistic individuals are more disposed to experiencing positive thoughts and feelings, which can serve as a protective factor against depression. Depressed individuals are likely to experiences schemas known as the negative cognitive triad (see Figure 5). These schemas cause individuals to have thoughts such as “I am defective or inadequate”, “All of my experiences result in defeats or failures” and “The future is hopeless” (Zafar & Murtaza, 2018). The question of what would occur if depressed individuals who are influenced by the negative cognitive triad were taught more positive ways of thinking has been asked and answered in a study conducted by Miranda, Weierich, Khait, Jurska and Anderson, (2017).

Miranda, Weierich, Khait, Jurska and Anderson's (2017) study had 170 participants with depression symptoms ranging from low to severe practice making optimistic future event predictions. As the study continued, participants started making optimistic remarks at a faster rate. This study includes variables that have been previously discussed, including mental rehearsal, positive thinking as well as the factors from the Reformulated Learned Helplessness Theory (RLHT) (Miranda, Weierich, Khait, Jurska and Anderson, 2017).

Quick Quiz 3[edit | edit source]

An optimistic individual sees negative events as:

specific, unstable, external
global, unstable, internal
specific, stable, internal
global, stable, external


Applications[edit | edit source]

The treatment and prevention of depression with the use of optimistic strategies can be incredibly useful, especially if prevention is taught in an educational setting or as a workshop through the public health system.

Treatment[edit | edit source]

To treat existing patients that already have depressive symptoms and have experienced the loss of a loved one, it may be useful to add interventions that boost optimism to alleviate distress and grief. An optimistic strategy that would lessen depressive symptoms would be to have them make positive predictions about their future, and aid them in reaching these goals (Boelen, 2015).

Another suggestion would be the inclusion of humour into treatment plans. Having a sense of humour has been associated with higher optimism and decreased depression and stress following a negative life event (Crawford & Caltabiano, 2011).

Figure 3. Use of optimistic skills to treat depression in therapeutic settings

The encouragement of optimistic thinking and healthy behaviours would be beneficial for those suffering with depression; optimism has been associated with higher rates of physical activity, lower stress and less toxic behaviours associated with depression such as binge drinking, eating and smoking (Conversano, Rotondo, Lensi, Vista, Arpone & Reda, 2010). Psychological treatment and preventions should therefore incorporate optimistic strategies into their programs.

With the application of theories such as positive reappraisal and explanatory styles, it is a possibility that psychologists can understand the nature of the relationship between optimism and depression more clearly and understand the different thinking styles of patients

Education[edit | edit source]

The incorporation of teaching interventions that highlight the importance of optimism as a protective factor against depression in schools and public health programs would be highly beneficial to the population (Carbone & Echols, 2017). This would be particularly useful after a natural disaster or a global pandemic, such as COVID-19.

Educators in schools should design interventions and workshops for students that highlight the importance of optimism and positive future expectancies. This will reduce the rate of mental health issues in schools that go untreated until adulthood, where it becomes treatment, and not prevention of depressive symptoms ( Jiang, Ye, Yu & Zhu, 2016; Zafar & Murtaza, 2018).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The relationship between optimism and depression can be summarised by researching dispositional optimism, Appraisal theory and the Explanatory style models of optimism. Dispositional optimism provides the framework behind optimism being a protective factor against depressive symptoms through healthy coping behaviours and a positive expectation for future endeavours. Appraisal theory explores the idea of positive reappraisal and how individuals can change their thinking style to be more optimistic and promote positivity rather than repetitive negative thinking. The explanatory style models of optimism explain the importance of individual differences in the explanation of why bad events happen and how easily these individuals recover from them. Optimism serves as a protective factor against depressive symptoms in a plethora of situations that individuals encounter throughout their lives. Future research should focus on gender differences in optimism and if optimism serves as a stronger predictive factor against depression for a particular group of persons.

See also[edit | edit source]

  1. Optimism (Wikiversity)
  2. Depression (Wikipedia)
  3. Appraisal theory (Wikipedia)
  4. Humour and Emotion (Book Chapter 2013)
  5. Optimism: Is it good to be optimistic? Can we learn to be more optimistic? (Book Chapter 2013)
  6. Positive Thinking as as cause of emotional problems (Book Chapter 2017)
  7. Learned Optimism (Book Chapter 2011)

References[edit | edit source]

Boelen, P. A. (2015). Optimism in prolonged grief and depression following loss: a three wave longistudional study, Psychiatry Research, 227, 313-317. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2015.03.009

Carbone, E. G. & Echols, E. T. (2017). Effects of optimism on recovery and mental health after a tornado outbreak, Psychology & Health, 32(5), 530-548. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08870446.2017.1283039

Crawford, S. A. & Caltabiano, N. J. (2011). Promoting Emotional Well-being through the use of Humour. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(3), 237-252. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2011.577087

Conversano, C., Rotondo, A., Lensi, E., Vista, O. D., Arpone, F. & Reda, M. A. (2010), Optimism and Its Impact on Mental and Physical Well-Being, Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health, 6, 25-29.

Everaert, J. & Joormann, J. (2019). Emotion Regulation Difficulties Related to Depression and Anxiety: A Network Approach to Model Relations Among Symptoms, Positive Reappraisal, and Repetitive Negative Thinking, Clinical Psychological Science, 7(6). 1304-1318. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F2167702619859342

Garland, E., Gaylord, S. & Park, J. (2009). The Role of Mindfulness in Positive Reappraisal, Explore, 5, 37-44. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.explore.2008.10.001

Jiang, F., Ye, X., Yu, G. & Zhu, F. (2016). How belief in a just world benefits mental health: The effects of optimism and gratitude, Soc Indic Res, 126, 411-423. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-015-0877-x

Kleiman, E.M., Chiara, A.M., Lie, R.T., Jager-Hyman, S.G., Choi, J.Y. & Alloy, L.B. (2017). Optimism and well-being: a prospective multi-method and multi-dimensional examination of optimism as a resilience factor following the occurrence of stressful life events, Cognition and Emotion, 31(2), 269-283. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2015.1108284

Miranda, R., Weierich, M., Khait, V., Jurska, J. & Andersen, S. M. (2017). Induced optimism as mental rehearsal to decrease depressive predictive uncertainty, Behaviour Research and Therapy, 90, 1-8. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2016.11.011

Moors, A., Ellsworth, P. C., Scherer, K. R., & Frijda, N. H. (2013). Appraisal theories of emotion: State of the art and future development. Emotion Review, 5(2), 119–124. Doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1177/1754073912468165

Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1985). Optimism, coping, and health: Assessment and implications of generalised outcome expectancies. Health Psychology, 4(3), 219–247. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-6133.4.3.219

Scheier, M. F., Carver, C. S., & Bridges, M. W. (2001). Optimism, pessimism, and psychological well-being. Optimism & pessimism: Implications for Theory, Research, and Practice, 1, 89–216. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/10385-009

Vickers, K.S & Vogeltanz, N. D. (2000). Dispositional optimism as a predictor of depressive symptoms over time, Personality and Individual Differences, 28, 259-272.

Vollmanm, M., Scharloo, M., Langguth, B., Kalkouskaya, N. & Salewski, C. (2014). Illness representations as mediators of the relationship between dispositional optimism and depression in patients with chronic tinnitus: A cross-sectional study, Psychology & Health, 29(1), 81-93. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/08870446.2013.828294

Wong, S.S. & Lim, T. (2008). Hope versus optimism in Singaporean adolescents: Contributions to depression and life satisfaction, Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 648-652.Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2009.01.009

Yarcheski, T. J., Mahhon, N. E. & Yaracheski, A. (2004). Depression, optimism and positive health practices in young adolescents, Psychological Reports, 95, 932-934.

Zafar, A. & Murtaza, H. (2018). Optimism and depression among students of university of Gujrat, International Journal of Applied Psychology, 8(3), 41-46. Doi 10.5923/j.ijap.20180803.01

External links[edit | edit source]

  1. Crash Course Psychology: Depression (Youtube, 2014)
  2. Hal Niedzviecki on being a depressed optimist (Youtube, 2009)
  3. Noam Chomsky talks Optimism (Youtube, 2016)
  4. Learned Helplessness: Seligman's Theory of Depression (Web article, 2018)
  5. Mindfulness and Positive Thinking (Web article, 2018)