Optimism as a Tool to Make Valuable Decisions

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Optimism can be considered a dimension of personality leading an individual to expect positive events concerning his or her future. Firstly, this essay tries to describe optimism and its characteristics; secondly, it focuses on some of the most interesting studies that highlight the positive consequences of such phenomenon on subjective well-being, health, success and close relationships.

Definition of optimism

Lionel Tiger (1979) described optimism as “a mood or attitude associated with an expectation about the social or material future – one which the evaluator regards as socially desirable, to his [or her] advantage, or for his [or her] pleasure”. This description suggests that optimism is not an objective construct, since it depends on what one thinks is desirable or pleasant for oneself (Peterson, 2000). It’s generally considered a motivational, affective and cognitive construct; indeed, optimistic people think and feel in a positive way regards their future (Foregard and Seligman, 2012). There are two approaches to the description and measurement of optimism: dispositional optimism (Carver et al., 2009) and the optimistic explanatory style (Peterson & Steen, 2009).

Dispositional optimism refers to a personality trait, in particular a generalised expectation that the future will reserve more positive rather than negative events. This is based on motivational expectancy-value models, which focus on pursuing goals: since value is represented by goals, the more important the latter, the more an individual is motivated to pursue them. According to the authors, optimistic people feel like they are able to achieve their goals notwithstanding the difficulties they meet, allowing them to organise, persist and implement the necessary coping strategies to achieve their goals. Carver and Scheier (1985) developed a measurement method of dispositional optimism called Life Orientation Test (LOT), through which they directly ask the participants if they expect their future events to be favourable or unfavourable. Such method was a basis for the development of the more successful Life Orientation Test-Rivisited (LOT-R; Scheier, Carver, & Bridges, 1994). Although we speak of optimistic and pessimistic people, these tests show that most individuals can’t be considered exclusively optimistic or pessimistic, but can be placed in a continuum.

Optimistic explanatory style is based on the learned helplessness model (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978), which claims that most animals and humans give up and feel helpless (i.e. passive and unresponsive) after experiencing negative uncontrollable events, likely because they learned that there’s no connection between their actions and the consequences. Researchers then focused on the way some individuals who do not experience helplessness, explain the causes of such negative events. Research shows that individuals who experience learned helplessness have a pessimistic explanatory style: they attribute the causes of negative events to internal, stable and global factors. On the other hand, people who don’t become helpless attribute such causes to external, specific and unstable factors. Therefore, an optimistic individual can say that he or she hasn’t passed an exam because questions were not appropriate or because the location was too noisy and they couldn’t focus, whereas a pessimistic individual tends to blame themselves for not being good enough at studying or for being stupid.

Optimistic explanatory style can be measured through an Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ; Peterson et al., 1982), where participants are assigned hypothetical events with positive or negative results and they have to say what they think the causes of these events might be if they had occurred to them. Another measurement scale is the Content Analysis of Verbal Explanations (CAVE, Peterson et al., 1992), where explanations for events are collected from diaries, interviews and speeches. With both of these methods researchers can evaluate the responses of the participants, highlighting internal-external, stable-unstable and global-transient factors to obtain information about their optimism and pessimism. Benefits of optimism Research in both dispositional and optimistic explanatory style showed how being optimistic can lead to positive consequences. For instance, optimism seems to be associated with high levels of subjective well-being (Scheier et al., 2001). Indeed, optimism in college students on their first year leads them to a better adjustment, decreased probability to leave school and fewer depression symptoms (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1992).

Furthermore, optimism is associated to higher well-being as regards childbirth, failures in artificial insemination and treatment of breast cancer (Forgeard & Seligman, 2012). Generally research shows that optimists don’t tend to avoid problems: instead, they deal with them trying to solve them actively. In fact, Taylor et al. (1992), studying a sample of AIDS patients, found that those who were optimists didn’t avoid thinking about their symptoms, but dealt with the illness by looking for information and planning the cure, in addition to putting less blame on themselves and being less fatalistic.

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Another factor studied in relation to optimism is health. Indeed, optimists seem to be physically healthier. Optimism seems to be associated with a healthier cardiovascular system and it may also increase longevity: in a study (Giltery et al., 2004) researchers studied for ten years a sample of 941 Dutch people between 65 and 85 years old and the results showed that more optimistic patients had half the probability to die compared to less optimistic patients (controlling for other risk factors such as age, blood pressure, smoking and weight). Optimism also seems to slow down illness progression, as in the development of AIDS and arteriosclerosis (Matthews et al., 2004).

Nevertheless, there are studies that present controversial results about the positivity of optimism on health. We can say that, in general, optimism has a positive influence on health, but we have to take into account the seriousness and the type of illness being dealt with. Indeed, optimism may have positive effects on an illness at its early stage, but much reduced effect at more advanced stages. As Seligman (2011) says, “if a crane falls on you, optimism is not of much use”. Also, we have to take into account the difference between realistic and unrealistic optimism.

Indeed, an individual can have good reasons to bear optimistic expectations about the future, whereas another one can see his own future in a positive way even if he actually has no reason to do so. Weinstein (1980) was a pioneer in this field and studied the consequences of unrealistic optimism, described as the belief for an individual to have less probability to fall into negative events compared to his peers. For instance, smokers tend to think, unrealistically, that they have less probability to have lung cancer compared to other smokers, and consequently they feel a reduced incentive to quit (Dillard et al., 2006). Thus, people with unrealistic optimism are less likely to adopt a behaviour that promotes health, especially when there is a combination of unrealistic and dispositional optimism (Davidson & Prkachin, 1997). This difference between realistic and unrealistic optimism is very important in order to understand when optimism can promote health and when it can endanger it.

Another factor linked to optimism is success. We can notice such an influence especially in those works where people often experience failure, such as the life insurance business. Sellers constantly find themselves facing refusal by customers, but optimist sellers persist and keep on calling; this way, they have higher chances to sell life insurance compared to less optimistic people, who are also more likely to quit (Seligman & Schulman, 1986). We can notice such effect on success also in Olympic champions, who show a higher level of hope and optimism (Gould et al., 2002). Even in this field, unrealistic optimism can be a problem and can lead to making wrong choices. On the other hand, it can be useful when individuals, unrealistically and optimistically, look forward to overcoming obstacles in order to achieve a goal: indeed, this helps them to maintain high motivation and self-efficacy and to encourage others to aspire to higher standards, increasing persistence.

Moreover, it’s interesting to notice how people tend to prefer optimists, as is the case in the political arena: in a study conducted from 1900 to 1984 (Zullow & Seligman, 1990), researchers found that more optimistic candidates won US presidential elections 18 times out of 22. An interesting and relatively recent field of study about optimism concerns its positive effects on close relationships. Indeed, optimists seem to work harder on relationships and a study on newlyweds (Neff & Geers, 2013) concluded that optimists deal with discussion in a more constructive manner than pessimists, and also showed a reduced decline in the well-being of the couple during the first year of marriage. Furthermore, optimists benefit from greater social support and a larger network of relationships, less dependent on race, age and education (Andersson, 2012). Finally, optimists show deeper involvement and more affection with their children (Heinonen et al, 2006), leading the latter to a better adjustment.

Conclusion

Research shows how being optimistic may help individuals in all aspects of their lives. Although problems might arise in the case of excessive or unrealistic optimism, the benefits of such attitude are countless. Optimism, in fact, can accompany an individual on his or her life path; indeed, it goes with them and helps them to make choices, to increase probability of success and to deal in the best possible way with the most serious difficulties, such as those related to health.

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