The Psychological Benefits of Optimism

“The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised.”
George F. Will, The Leveling Wind

“A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”
Harry Truman

“It doesn’t hurt to be optimistic. You can always cry later.”
Lucimar Santos de Lima

Today psychology professor Ian Newby-Clark has decided to join us to talk about the benefits of optimism. You can read his blog on changing habits at http://my-bad-habits.blogspot.com.

There are certainly a lot of opinions about optimism and pessimism. Some people, like George Will, think that pessimism is the way to go. Yet, others like Truman and Santos de Lima, favor an optimistic outlook on life. People on both sides of the debate make good points. But who’s right? Should you see the glass as half-full or half-empty? What does the science say?

The Benefits of Optimism

There are clear benefits to having an optimistic outlook on life. There are benefits to your everyday mood, to your personal health, and to your ability to cope with life’s occasional setbacks.

1. Optimists are Happier

Research shows it over and over again—optimists are happy people. They report more positive moods than do pessimists. Although this finding may seem ‘obvious’ at first blush, it is not. In fact, optimists could be rather miserable because, unlike pessimists, they must experience disappointment on a regular basis—just ask George Will. Whatever disappointment optimists experience must be temporary.

2. Optimists are Healthier

Optimists do not get sick as often as do pessimists and, when optimists do get sick, they get better quicker. We don’t know exactly why that is, but the effect of stress on our immune systems is most likely involved. Optimists experience less stress, which means a stronger immune system.

3. Optimists are Better at Coping

Perhaps optimists don’t cope well with adversity. If they’re expecting the best, then they might not be well-prepared for the worst. But here’s the thing, pessimists are the ones who have trouble coping. It’s like optimistic thinking acts like a suit of armor, protecting you from life’s slings and arrows. Also, optimists are better consumers of health information—this is probably one of the reasons they don’t get sick as much as pessimists.

The scientific jury is in. There are proven benefits to optimism. If you are optimistic, you’ll have a better mood, be healthier and cope better with life’s little setbacks. Of course, science is complicated and the science of studying humans is even more complicated. So, I could never say that optimism is absolutely the best thing for all people all of the time. There are definitely benefits to being optimistic, though. So, go on, be optimistic. See the glass as half-full and be happy.

Ian Newby-Clark is a psychology professor who studies habits and habit change. Visit his blog at: http://my-bad-habits.blogspot.com to read his informative and witty posts. Among other topics, Ian has blogged about strength of will and guilty pleasures. Also, Nyssa-the-habit-changer regularly writes in with updates on her progress.


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  • Thomas

    “1. Optimists are Happier”

    Did you mean “there is a positive correlation between optimism and happiness”? There is a world of difference here. Such a correlation probably exists, but does not imply that happiness results from optimism. It may well be the other way round: happier people are more inclined to be optimistic. Or both could be caused by a third factor, for example a genetic disposition to be happy or optimistic.

    A similar argument could be applied to “2. Optimists are Healthier”: the general strength of a person’s immune system will cause that person to get better quicker, and a good immune system will also kill viruses more quickly before they get a chance to affect your feeling of health and thereby your optimistic outlook.

    All this is not to say that it a bad idea to be optimistic — on the contrary, I’m all for it. But most of your “scientific” argumentation is incorrect.

  • http://www.lipsciences.com Bart

    Thomas – nice point.

    The difference between correlation and causation is tricky, and often muddled by our desires. I *want* to believe that increasing optimism would increase my happiness.

    I’d love it if Ian or Scott could provide some examples of the studies used to influence the opinions of the author. It would be nice to see, in a more direct way, “what science says”.

    Maybe a place to start would be a one study done at Dartmouth by David Blanchflower, that seemed to relate happiness with sex called “Money, Sex, and Happiness: an Empirical Study”. In this study, David references another study by saying, “Recent work by Kahneman et al (2003) suggests that sexual activity is the most happiness-inducing part of life.” If you can sift through his notes, I’m sure you’ll be able to stir up something.

    I’m glad Thomas brings up this point about scientific argumentation – there is very little of it in the blogosphere.Asking for more than popcorn journalism is a serious challenge I’d like to see more authors take seriously.

  • Ben

    Hi all,

    If your interested in further information about the research being done on optimism and happiness, I would recommend the following books:

    “Learned Optimism” & “Authentic Happiness” by Martin Seligman and “A primer in Positive Psychology” by Christopher Peterson.

    The field of Positive Psychology is heavily involved in researching issues such as optimism and happiness.

    I hope these titles are of interest.

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    Thomas,

    I don’t believe Ian made a mistake with his post. “Optimists are happier,” could be read as, “Optimism is correlated with happiness.” I’m well aware of the difference between correlation and causation, and I don’t believe Ian made the mistake in his headings. Had he wrote, “Optimism creates happiness” that would require a different justification.

    -Scott

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  • Scott

    Does less stress really lead to a stronger immune system?

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young

    Scott,

    It’s unfortunate that Ian didn’t have the research studies to cite for this article, but I have heard from multiple sources that stress hurts the immune system.

    -Scott

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  • http://www.LookingForMyLife.com Aaron Wong

    Hey great article! I definitely agree that optimists are happier. You can check out my article at:

    http://www.LookingForMyLife.com

    http://www.lookingformylife.com/home/2010/2/19/boarding-the-positivity-plane-10-benefits-of-optimism.html

  • Lloyd

    Didn’t you know that optimists never get sick … they’re just getting an immune system upgrade. :)

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