Is Optimism helpful?

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Is optimism helpful?

Optimists are people who expect good things to happen to them even when the going gets tough. Pessimists on the other hand expect bad things to happen to them. Folk psychology suggests that optimists cope better when things go wrong and demonstrate higher resilience to stressful life events. Optimists also tend to feel better; with research suggesting an optimistic outlook produces a more positive mix of feelings. There is research that even suggests optimists cope better and have better outcomes after health problems such as heart disease and cancer. This work shows that people who are more optimistic tend to be less distressed by what is happening to them and have better life satisfaction for example after surgery. In addition people who are more optimistic have been shown to be more resilient and to cope better with natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and even other types of disaster such as terrorist attacks.

So why is an optimistic outlook helpful? One suggestion is that people who are more confident about eventual success are more likely to keep trying even if things are hard. In contrast, people who are uncertain and less confident may avoid facing the problem in front of them, or may simply give up more easily. In addition it is suggested there are links between optimism and helpful ways of coping. For example, people who are optimistic are more likely to take practical steps to solve the problem they face and to seek support from others. Thus the optimist may be better at using available supports and resources and more likely to face a problem head on. The optimist may also be better equipped to hang in there when the going gets tough and the stressful situation has to be endured.

Are there any drawbacks? Some suggest optimists may be vulnerable to “optimism bias” by seeing things through rose-colored glasses. Perhaps optimists only see what they want to see, set oversized goals and have unrealistic expectations. That is, maybe optimists just don’t know when to give up. However these aspects have not generally found support in the research literature.

Can pessimists become optimists? There is some suggestion that optimism is relatively stable over time and part of a person’s personality make up. However this does not mean that it is impossible to change your perspective to think more positively and to become more optimistic. Certain kinds of negative thoughts can lead to negative feelings and emotions, and lead people to stop trying to reach their goals. Cognitive behavior therapy is an approach focusing on assisting people to notice and change such unhelpful patterns of thinking. Working with a psychologist to modify negative thinking patterns can help you develop more realistic perspectives about yourself and the community around you, perhaps even to adopt a more optimistic viewpoint.

At the end of the day, when the times are hard optimists may manage better not because they are in denial; rather they might just be better at hanging in there!

Dr Debbie Snell is a clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology, concussion and rehabilitation. You can learn more about her and her work at


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