Can we teach optimism?

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
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Following last week’s article on coping with today’s 24/7 news cycle, Dr Stephanie Thornton continues her discussion on optimism – can we (and should we try to) ‘teach’ this in schools?

Positive psychology has been increasingly prominent in recent years. Optimism and positive thinking have been claimed as beneficial to physical and emotional health, to social engagement, to problem-solving capacities. Optimism has even been cited as a key factor in our evolution (Tiger 1979).
From this perspective we should all obviously be teaching the young an optimistic way of being! But over the past decade there has also been a backlash, questioning whether optimism is really that beneficial and whether it can – or should – be taught.

There is quite a body of research suggesting that an optimistic outlook is indeed beneficial to physical and mental health. For example, a review by Harvard Medical School sites a number of research studies showing that those who score as optimists are less likely to have health problems (from cardiac disease to viral infections), to have lower blood pressure, to have better outcomes after surgery, to live longer and be less likely to suffer from depression or anxiety.

Equally, optimists take a more positive view of their potential, and so are more likely than pessimists to persevere – and succeed – in problem-solving and achieving goals in work, education or sport (Carr 2004; Gordon 2007).

On the other hand, there is also research suggesting that optimism can be a liability. An optimistic perspective can lead us to underestimate or even dismiss threats and difficulties, or to fail to plan for possible bad outcomes. This can be deleterious to health in various ways (for example, in enabling smoking – Dillard et al 2006).

There is data suggesting that misplaced optimism is a contributory factor in the risk-taking and consequent accidental injuries that are the leading cause of death in the young (Little 2006). Optimism has also been implicated in our general human tendency to underestimate the difficulties and costs of major projects (Flybjerg 2006), or to fail to plan finances appropriately (Yang et al 2007). And optimistic views of our abilities can be illusions, more associated with narcissism than mental health (Robins & John 1997). A “defensive pessimism” can sometimes be more beneficial in achieving goals such as exam passes – if it leads to greater effort to prepare and ward off possible failure (Norem & Cantor 1989).

Thus the picture of the benefits of optimism is far more mixed than most media reports would suggest. Most interestingly, there is evidence that whether optimism is beneficial or not depends on general circumstances: for example, Hmieleski (2007) found that optimists were more effective than pessimists in stable, predictable environments, but pessimists were more effective than optimists in dynamically unstable and rapidly changing environments. This an important point to note – particularly in our rapidly changing and worrying world.

So should we be fostering optimism in the young? The research doesn’t point unequivocally to an answer.

In some circumstances, an optimistic outlook makes for a calmer, happier and healthier individual, and one who has the confidence to persevere and hence succeed in challenges. But sometimes a healthy pessimism is better – protective against damaging errors of judgement, failures of anticipation and inadequate preparation to face those challenges. The trend among researchers now is toward a nuanced view of the benefits of optimism, rather than the blanket advocacy of this approach popular in much of the media.

In any case, there has been some debate as to whether we can, in fact, teach individuals to be optimistic. The issue hinges on what optimism actually is, and here there are many definitions and theories. One key approach sees optimism as a personality trait, a temperamental disposition to look on the bright side (Scheier & Carver 1992) – and it is generally assumed that such dispositions are hard to change.

The alternative thesis sees optimism not as a disposition but as a strategy, a way of interpreting the world that orients to the positive (Seligman 1990) that can be learned. However, the difference as to the teachability of optimism between these views may be more apparent than real: research in developmental psychology suggests that personality traits are more the product of learning and less genetically determined than has been supposed (Roberts et al 2006).

There are studies demonstrating that interventions can create change in outlook in relation to optimism and pessimism (Seligman 1990). However, it is not entirely clear what it is that is actually changed – whether optimism is increased, or pessimism reduced? It’s a difference worth exploring.

In the popular mind, pessimism is the inverse of optimism, so a decline in the one implies an increase in the other. But research suggests that this view is overly simplistic: pessimism and optimism seem to be two different factors, two different skills rather than opposite ends of one continuum (Chang & D’Zurilla 1994). Some experts believe that at least some of the benefits ascribed to optimism may, in fact, be due to the absence of pessimism rather than to optimism per se.

As is more often the case than is acknowledged, psychological research does not necessarily generate simple practical implications in relation to the fostering of optimism – though some conclusions do follow from this work.

A nuanced view

Overall, an optimistic outlook has many benefits – but it is not always beneficial to see only the bright side. The truth is that both optimism and pessimism have their place in life. The young need help in gaining a balanced perspective, given the many websites simply extoling optimism and eschewing, if not wholly demonising, pessimism

Strategies, not traits

There is value in teaching the young to regard optimism and pessimism as strategies, not traits. Unaware of the research, most teenagers (and adults) will assume that optimism is a personality trait and so unchangeable, or that if changed, will assume that this involves a global shift across life as a whole. By contrast, strategies can be learned, and are part of a toolbox from which one can select what is appropriate to the task in hand. Viewing optimism and pessimism in this way allows the possibility of flexible – and productive – deployment of different strategies in different situations

Risk analysis

We should teach better risk analysis. Of course, the hardest thing in life is to know when it is better to be optimistic and simply assume a good outcome – and when it is better to be more cautious. The healthy attitude (whether optimism or pessimism) is the one that leads to the most appropriate preparation and action for the circumstances. Better appraisal of risks and challenges, of resources and possibilities, can guide strategy choice. Teaching such skills should be a basic part of education

A hybrid approach?

The discovery that optimism and pessimism are not opposite ends of a single dimension opens up new possibilities. Can we teach the young to have their cake and eat it? In other words, can we pick and choose which elements of optimism or pessimism to foster, and which to discourage?
Specifically, can we teach the young to have the positive emotions of hope in the future and faith in their abilities characteristic of optimism, but alongside the more pragmatic realism of risk analysis associated with pessimism? It’s an area still under research. But it can’t hurt to try.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development. To read Dr Thornton’s previous articles in SecEd, including her first piece in this current series, which focused on coping with today’s 24/7 news cycle, go to http://bit.ly/2o1BVxK

Further information

  • Carr A (2004) Positive Psychology: The science of happiness and human strengths. Routledge.
  • Little H (2006). Children’s risk-taking behaviour: implications for early childhood policy and practice. International Journal of Early Years Education, 14 141-154.
  • Norem J & Cantor N (1986) Defensive pessimism: Harnessing anxiety as motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 51, 1208-1217.
  • Seligman MEP (1990). Learned Optimism. Simon & Schuster, New York.
  • Tiger L. (1979). Optimism: The Biology of Hope. Simon & Schuster, New York.


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