The Power of Optimism

The Power of Optimism

Learning to be more optimistic can have an incredible impact on our overall sense of health and well-being. This month we explore how we can boost our optimistic thoughts to capture some truly positive benefits.

Optimism is Everywhere

Optimism, and its importance in mental health and wellbeing, is a concept that has boomed in psychological research over the last 20 years. It has been integral in the rise of positive psychology and championed by researchers such as Martin Seligman in his book Learned Optimism, and Tali Sharot in The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brainas a life-changing tool that people can learn. As a result, it has become increasingly popular in spheres of work performance, mental health, wellbeing and psychology. 
Historically viewed by scientists as a negative trait, optimism is often deeply misunderstood and underused, meaning that people aren’t able to harness this simple device effectively. However, optimism can actually improve your mental and physical health, work performance, and quality of life. In some studies, optimism has even been linked to helping you live longer. Therefore, this month we are focusing on how and why learning to be more optimistic can benefit you, potentially creating life-changing results. 

The History of Optimism

Optimism was historically misunderstood as a form of denial or delusional thinking, associated with simple, naïve, and unrealistic people. As a result, optimism was dismissed as a concept worth exploring in psychology. However, this began to change as studies took place which were able to measure optimism levels in individuals and see the linked benefits. 
This increased interest led to the emergence of psychological theories of the nature and development of optimism. Carver and Scheier developed a theory where they argued that optimism is a disposition, a trait that people naturally either have or don’t have in their personality. 
However, in the 70s and 80s, Martin Seligman published his now famous research on learned helplessness and learned optimism where he argues that optimism can be learned. This sparked the rise of Positive Psychology and a mass of research exploring the benefits and nature of learned optimism. 

What is Optimism?

Optimism is a complex concept, but is generally defined as:

  • The inclination to hope.
  • The tendency to expect good things in the future.

Seligman argues that people either have an optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style. An explanatory style is how people explain events that happen to them, or adversity in their life. These explanatory styles can develop due to genetic, social, cultural factors and particularly from life events. 

Pessimistic Explanatory Style

To Seligman, more pessimistic people explain bad events in the following ways, thinking that the causes are:

  • Permanent – they believe that bad events happen for reasons that are permanent.
  • Pervasive – they believe this bad event means bad events will happen in all spheres of their lives.
  • Personal – they believe that bad events are caused by themselves and are their fault.

Optimistic Explanatory Style

On the other hand, more optimistic people explain bad events in different ways, thinking that the causes are: 

  • Temporary – they believe that bad events happen for reasons that are temporary.
  • Specific – they compartmentalise bad events, seeing them as specific to this one area of their lives.
  • External cause– they believe that bad events are caused by external things and are not their fault.

These can be flipped in good situations, which optimists generally see as permanent, pervasive and personal and pessimists see as temporary, specific and externally caused. 

The Scenario:

Unsuccessful Job Application vs Successful Job Application

Optimistic Explanatory Style

  • This is only one job application, I’ll find another job just like I’ve found jobs before.
  • This won’t happen in every job application I do.
  • Maybe this wasn’t the right fit of job for me.
  • I knew I’d find a job, I generally am successful in job application process.

Pessimistic Explanatory Style

  • I never succeed in job applications.
  • This has happened because I’m a bad applicant and worker.
  • This was a fluke and I might still fail my probation period
  • I got the job because no one else applied.

Are You an Optimist or Pessimist?

Segerstrom (2006) claims that 80% of people are optimists. We can become this way via social learning, role modelling behaviours, through genetics, or through cultural influences, mental health. Optimists often feel empowered, seeing adversity as a challenge they can readily conquer and grow from. 
However, many of us can be classified as pessimists which can lead to a learned helplessness, and an attitude of apathy, where people believe they have no control over what happens in their life so feel it is pointless to try. This can lead to low self-confidence, self-blaming and low self-esteem.
Stanford University has created The Learned Optimism test which is adapted from Dr. Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism. This test is designed to see if you have a pessimistic or optimistic explanatory style.
Click here to take test and find out if you are a pessimist or optimist

Can Optimism be Learned?

Research demonstrates that optimism can be learned. Seligman argued that techniques from Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy developed to conquer depression are particularly effective at boosting optimism. These can be effective even for people who are generally optimistic (more information on how to be more optimistic section later in this article).

Why Be Optimistic?

There are 5 main benefits that scientific research has linked to higher levels of optimism. 

1. Improved mental health.

  • Optimism reduces depression symptoms, particularly reducing feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts.
  • On the other hand, pessimists are more at risk of developing depression and anxiety, as well as having more social skills difficulties than optimists.

2. Improved quality of life.

  • Optimists report a higher quality of life (e.g. emotional, functional, and socio-familial wellbeing) to those with low levels of optimism or pessimists.
  • Studies on hospital patients have found that optimistic patients are more likely to return to their daily routine after a period of hospitalisation then pessimistic ones.

3. Better physical health and longer life.

  • Many studies have found that optimism is correlated with better physical wellbeing compared to pessimism. This is often due to optimism promoting a healthy lifestyle and being related to healthy behaviours e.g. not smoking, consuming less alcohol, more physical activity.
  • Optimists are more likely to live longer e.g. A study on patients with neck or head cancer found that optimists had higher survival rates after 1 year.
  • Optimists have higher immunity levels due to a positive mindset releasing hormones that boosts immune systems, so become ill less frequently.

4. Lower stress levels.

  • Optimists are more likely to use engaged coping strategies to eliminate or manage stress.
  • Optimists are less likely to use coping strategies that try to avoid or ignore stress, such as drinking or eating.

5. Increased work performance

  • A long-term study found that optimists were more successful, in higher paid and higher position jobs, than pessimists.
  • Optimists have also been found to have improved work performance, to try harder and make more effective decisions.

How To Be More Optimistic

There are many ways you can try to be more optimistic. Seligman adapts Albert Ellis’ ABC’s from Rational- Emotive Behavioural Therapy and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive-Behavioural techniques, creating a 5-step system to boost optimism, ABCDE. This system focuses on identifying the underlying thoughts and beliefs that influence behaviour in adversity, encouraging a different response to these thoughts and beliefs to change behaviour.

AdversityThe event that causes stress
BeliefHow the person interprets the event
ConsequenceThe resulting action from the belief caused by the adversity
DisputationChallenge pessimistic thoughts from A-C by looking at evidence disputing this – the effort we expend to argue or dispute the belief
EnergisingCreate an optimistic thought to counteract, this will lead to more energy – the outcome that emerges from trying to challenge our beliefs

How to put ABCDE into Action

Write down or talk through the following 5 steps to help boost your optimism levels. You can use this approach to learn more about your responses to difficult and positive situations. This can be incredibly difficult to do and may need to be repeated multiple times. If you want some support with negative thoughts, it can be helpful to connect to a counsellor or psychologist through your EAP. 

AdversityThink about an adversity you recently faced
e.g. unsuccessful promotion application
BeliefWhat thoughts ran through your mind when you think about this adversity, did you believe them?
e.g. I’m a terrible person, I will always fail
ConsequenceWhat consequences happened as a result of responding to or believing these thoughts?
e.g. drinking alcohol to avoid the stress
DisputationGo back to stage B. Look at these beliefs and ask yourself – are these helpful to who you want to be? Are there other times you have felt like a good person or have succeeded?
e.g. received positive feedback at annual review
EnergisingIs there a more helpful thought or optimistic thought that can help you when these beliefs or thoughts arise again?
e.g. I am enough, I try my best as an employee and usually do a great job.

Final Word

Optimism is a powerful mental attitude that heavily influences your physical and mental wellbeing as well as your work performance and quality of life. Excitingly, research shows that optimism can be learned and that anyone can reap the benefits. Dr. Martin Seligman’s ABCDE 5-step model of learning optimism is a quick and easy tool to help boost optimism. So why not try to be a little more optimistic, a little can prove to go a long way. 

Join The Conversation: Free Webinar

Acacia Connection is excited to launch our new monthly webinar series, where you can continue the conversation around our monthly topic online. These sessions are brought to you by our specialised training provider, The Workshop Lab, and are offered to all Acacia Connection clients and their employees free of charge. 

April’s Webinar: Optimistic Workplaces
Join our 45-60 minute webinar where we continue the conversation about optimism in the workplace. During the session we we talk more about how to build a ‘realistically optimistic’ workplace, free from the negativity trap. During this micro- learning session, we will also share some valuable communication tips for dealing with the Negative Nellys & Doomsday Dons of the workplace. 

Date: Friday, 5th April 2019 
Time: QLD: 11am; SA: 11:30am; NSW & VIC: 12 noon; NT: 10:30am. 

Register Here 

If you or someone close to you needs support, contact Acacia Connection for an appointment.

P: 1300 364 273 | Text or Live Chat: 0401 337 711 | W:

"The safety and wellbeing of our clients and staff is always our top priority. Acacia EAP is currently operating under normal conditions. Due to the pandemic status of COVID-19, some locations may move from face-to-face counselling to secure video or phone. All counselling services are able to be provided 24/7, as always. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and act quickly on the advice of health authorities."