Updated: May 5, 2022
Learn theories about optimism and how to be more optimistic.
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”—Winston Churchill
Optimism can be defined as “the extent to which people hold generalized favorable expectancies for their future” (Carver et al., 2010). When we're optimistic, we expect good things to happen. To learn more about optimism, let's explore some theories related to optimism and then talk about how to be more optimistic.
Expectancy-Value Theory of Optimism
This theory suggests that our behavior is guided by the strength of our desire to reach a goal (value) and our confidence in achieving that goal (expectancy) (Scheier & Carver, 1992). The confidence part of this equation is thought to explain the main difference between optimists and pessimists.
Theory About Expectations
Peterson and Seligman suggest that our expectations for the future arise from how we interpret past failures (1984). They posit that if we believe that our past failures stem from innate and unchanging character flaws, for example, we are more likely to hold a pessimistic outlook for the future. In contrast, if we attribute a past failure to bad luck we are more likely to hold an optimistic outlook for the future.
How Optimism Impacts Well-Being
Optimistic people tend to be happier than pessimistic people. Optimism is also related to lower hopelessness (Alloy et al., 2006). For example, optimistic people generally report higher levels of subjective well-being during times of adversity (Carver et al., 2010). One of the reasons for the link between optimism and well-being is the way optimists cope with problems. They are generally more likely to engage in goal-oriented behavior because they are more confident that they can achieve those goals. So optimists seem to engage in healthy coping methods, such as considering and enacting practical solutions to issues. This is in contrast with pessimists who tend to engage in avoidant coping methods, such as distraction. All of this contributes to greater well-being among optimists.
How Optimism Impacts Other Outcomes
Some evidence suggests that optimists are more successful when it comes to education level and income (Evans & Segerstrom, 2009; Segerstrom, 2007). Optimists might also be happier than pessimists in their social and romantic relationships (Carver et al., 2010). Additionally, studies have shown that people tend to like optimistic people more than pessimistic people, which likely increases the number of healthy relationships that optimists have (Carver et al., 1994).
Can You Be More Optimistic?
While optimism is sometimes considered a trait that might not change much over time, we do have some power to change our level of optimism (Segerstrom, 2007). Here are some tips.
1. Choose your own version of optimism.
There’s no need to be optimistic all the time in every scenario (this is impossible). Instead, you can try slowly incorporating new optimistic ideas into your worldview in a way that feels authentic to you.
2. Start questioning pessimistic thoughts.
We sometimes tell ourselves that our pessimistic thoughts are realistic thoughts. But remember, thoughts are not facts. If you find yourself mired in negativity, try to pause and question your thoughts.
3. Surround yourself with other optimists.
Being around others who are optimistic can help you learn new tricks and discover how others find the positives even in negative situations. Simply being around an optimist can make us more optimistic.
4. Don’t force optimism.
Becoming more optimistic is like any new habit: it requires motivation and practice to become second nature. It can feel a little unnatural at first (like riding a bike or rollerskating). So try it when you feel comfortable, but don't worry about pushing yourself too far out of your comfort zone at first.
Holding an optimistic outlook has a number of benefits. So shifting your expectations for the future and cultivating more optimism in your daily life could have a positive impact on your well-being.
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Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2010). Optimism. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 879-889.
Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1992). Effects of optimism on psychological and physical well-being: Theoretical overview and empirical update. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 16(2), 201-228.
Alloy, L. B., Abramson, L. Y., Whitehouse, W. G., Hogan, M. E., Panzarella, C., & Rose, D. T. (2006). Prospective incidence of first onsets and recurrences of depression in individuals at high and low cognitive risk for depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 115(1), 145.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (1984). Causal explanations as a risk factor for depression: theory and evidence. Psychological Review, 91(3), 347.
Evans, D. R., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2009). Optimism and college retention: Mediation by motivation, performance, and adjustment. J Appl Soc Psychol, 39(8), 1887-1912.
Segerstrom, S. C. (2007). Optimism and resources: Effects on each other and on health over 10 years. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(4), 772-786.
Carver, C. S., Kus, L. A., & Scheier, M. F. (1994). Effects of good versus bad mood and optimistic versus pessimistic outlook on social acceptance versus rejection. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 13(2), 138-151.