Research on optimism and pessimism is budding right now, with more studies conducted in the past decade than in the last 20-30 years. If you take a look at the studies in the field, you’ll notice a number of positive results associated with optimism and a widespread tendency people have for positive attitude.
According to psychologists, the world’s population is mostly optimistic. Psychology views optimism as an important part of survival and science has confirmed it. Studies have related optimism to a variety of positive outcomes including better life expectancy and health as well as success at work. Some studies have also related it to better recovery after surgeries and better handling of stress. Optimism has many positive benefits for our physical and mental health, which is why we should always strive towards it.
The first wave of optimism research was focused on creating measuring tools for the process. This allowed scientists to closely inspect the effect of optimism on our health. The subsequent studies presented a positive picture associated with an optimistic outlook in life, whether it’s the theory of dispositional optimism or ‘explanatory style’ optimism.
Dispositional Optimism (Carver and Scheier)
The term dispositional optimism was coined by Michael Scheier and Charles Carver in one of their studies on optimism. It is supposed to describe a global expectation that there will be plenty of good things in the future and a lack of bad things.
Carver and Scheier associate optimism with positive outcomes and pessimism with negative outcomes. In studies focused on young adults, optimists were much more satisfied in life, while pessimists were much more depressive.
The same studies also showed that optimists rarely suffer from stress and have fewer physical symptoms, confirming their theory that optimism can lead to a better life outcome. Even when researching a group of patients diagnosed with breast cancer, those with a positive attitude were less likely to engage in denial strategies and were far more relaxed
Explanatory Optimism (Seligman and Peterson)
Another concept about optimism rose from Martin Seligman’s ‘learned helplessness’ research from the 70s. This concept describes a behavior where a person endures constantly painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it is unable to avoid.
Seligman’s concept gave birth to ‘explanatory style’ optimism, a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why good or bad things happen to them. Seligman also developed a technique known as attributional retraining that is supposed to teach people how to be optimistic and ‘cure’ their pessimism.
According to Seligman’s theory, people who explain bad events with stable, internal or global causes are pessimists, while those who explain bad events with external, unstable and specific causes are optimists. The theory heavily relies on the notion that an absence of pessimism leads to optimism.
The ‘learned optimism’ approach focuses on reducing helplessness (depression) with the cognitive therapy models developed by Beck in the 60s and 70s and Ellis (1975), which don’t really teach people ‘optimism’ as much as they teach reducing pessimism.
Can Optimism Actually be Learned?
Becks and Eliss’s models and Seligman’s work showed that optimism can be learned, although it didn’t really specify if this is actually learning optimism or reducing pessimism. Seligman’s theory didn’t really prove efficient, which led to more studies on optimism.
In 2006, Segerstrom demonstrated the link between optimists and their investment and perseverance in goal setting in her book Breaking Murphy’s Law. Segerstrom is adamant that learning strategies associated with optimism are achievable while dismissing the link between Seligman’s ‘learning optimism’ and the explanatory style concept.
Newest research is showing that even though optimism is most like dispositional, it can be learned. In Segerstrom’s book, she writes that optimists are healthy and happy because of how they act, not who they are. This can be learned, meaning that we can defeat pessimism and the problems triggered by it.