What is Optimism?
Optimism and the Emergence of Positive Psychology
Optimism and Physical Health
Optimism and Mental Health
There is growing recognition of the effectiveness of optimism as a positive psychological function and tool for better mental and physical health.
This article discusses positive psychology and recent research into positive mental attributes like optimism in the context of human health.
What is optimism?
So, what do we mean by optimism? According to the Cambridge dictionary, optimism refers to the ‘quality of being full of hope and emphasizing the good parts of a situation, or the belief that something good will happen.’
Our understanding of optimism lends itself to two closely related concepts ––one is the tendency toward hope while the second refers to the propensity to believe that we live in “the best of all possible worlds” as per Leibnizian optimism.
Optimism and the emergence of positive psychology
The study of optimism has grown in recent decades with the emergence of positive psychology.
In an article titled “Positive Psychology: An Introduction” Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) argued that traditional psychology as a field had mainly dealt with problem-focused psychology, focussing on issues of psychological damage, repair, and healing. Meanwhile, attributes of positive psychological phenomena such as hope, creativity, wisdom, courage, spirituality, and perseverance had been left aside.
The authors succeeded in drawing attention to individual strengths and virtues as a counterbalance to the more negative aspects of psychological pursuit. Since then, studies in positive psychology have sought to investigate the subjective experiences of the past, present and future:
- Past ––well-being, contentment, and satisfaction
- Present ––flow and happiness
- Future ––hope and optimism
More recently research has tended to the concept of “positive health” comprising elements of positive psychological assets like positive emotions, life satisfaction, optimism, life purpose, and social support. These positive psychological states and traits have been associated with better mental and physical health.
Optimism and physical health
Research has been undertaken on the construct of optimism and its association with physical health. These largely concentrate on chronic disease and work thus far has looked particularly at heart disease and cancer.
In the case of heart disease, research has demonstrated that optimism is associated with the alleviation of heart disease due to: reduced incidence of re-hospitalization for heart problems like myocardial infarction and coronary artery bypass surgery; decreased risk of coronary disease in the elderly as well as reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality; and a lesser chance of carotid disease progression in women.
One explanation for these findings is that optimistic people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors including healthy eating, physical exercise, and avoidance of harmful habits like smoking. A propensity toward a healthier lifestyle means more optimistic people were more likely to enjoy longer and healthier lives compared to their pessimistic peers.
More research needs to be done to determine whether optimism elevates the likelihood of engaging in a healthier lifestyle or whether other factors are involved (e.g., socioeconomic status).
When it comes to head and neck cancer, optimism was found to be associated with another year of survival regardless of other sociodemographic and clinical variables. Optimistic patients with these cancers experienced elevated opportunities for managing stressors compared to those with more pessimistic attributes who in turn experienced poorer physical health and were also more liable to depression and higher rates of mortality.
Optimism and mental health
Both positive and negative expectations about the future are important for understanding vulnerability to mental disorders and particularly mood disorders. Research has found an inverse correlation between optimism and the onset of depression and suicidal ideation.
Conversely, pessimists were found to be at higher risk for the development of depressive symptoms and anxiety disorders and were more likely to experience impaired quality of life, decreased life satisfaction and deleterious social functioning.
Cognitive neuropsychology has emphasized the role of maladaptive negative beliefs in the context of the development and maintenance of depression. People experiencing depression hold pessimistic views about themselves and the world around them.
Recent research in the field of cognitive neuropsychology has involved investigations into the concept of optimistic belief updating. It is thought depression is characterized by holding pessimistic beliefs about future expectations and that this state is maintained by a reduction in optimistic belief updating, even in the face of positive news. Individuals experiencing high levels of depression therefore demonstrate reduced optimism bias.
Further research into the area of reduced optimistic belief updating in association with depression is needed if we are to better understand this phenomenon.
- Boehm, J. et al. 2018. Is Optimism Associated with Healthier Cardiovascular-Related Behavior? Circulation Research. Doi: 10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.117.310828.
- Cambridge dictionary. 2022. Optimism. Online: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/optimism.
- Conversano, C. et al. 2010. Optimism and Its Impact on Mental and Physical Well-Being. Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health. Doi: 10.2174/1745017901006010025.
- Hobbs, C. 2022. Is depression associated with reduced optimistic belief updating? R. Soc. open sci. Doi: 10.1098/rsos.190814
- Park, N. 2016. Positive Psychology and Physical Health: Research and Applications. Am J Lifestyle Med. Doi: 10.1177/1559827614550277.
- Schiavon, C. 2017. Optimism and Hope in Chronic Disease: A Systematic Review. Front. Psychol. Doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.02022.
- Seligman, M. et al. 2000. Positive psychology. An introduction. Am. Psychol. Doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.5.
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Last Updated: Jul 7, 2022
Dr. Nicola Williams
I’m currently working as a post-doctoral fellow in the History of Science at the Leeds and Humanities Research Institute (LAHRI), at the University of Leeds. Broadly speaking my research area falls within the remit of the history of biology and history of technology in the twentieth century. More specifically I have specialist knowledge in the areas of electron microscopy and cellular and molecular biology, women in science and visual culture.
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