Well-being series: Can a pessimist learn optimism? (Optimism part 1)
Updated: Jun 3, 2019
As a follow up to my positive psychology assignment on optimism, I thought I would share some of my reflections as part of a series of blogs on well-being. You may recall that I elected to cultivate my level of optimism last autumn using a process of positive journaling. I did this for a period of 6 weeks and measured my well-being by noting a daily mood score (self-rated between 1-10). The aim was to understand more about how practicing optimism may help increase happiness.
My idea for an assignment began to take form whilst reading The How of Happiness ( Sonja, Lyubomirsky, 2007) and completing her Person Activity Fit Diagnostic. Something about practicing optimism attracted me, could it help challenge some of my unhelpful thinking styles which I believe under-root my mental health conditions? Fundamentally, it felt like practicing being optimistic would be useful to me.
Image taken from http://printedbyus.org/shop/glass-half-full-t-shirt-our-cow-molly
Early on I noticed my positive journalling practice helped me to become more focused on the present, and a little less worried about the future. Writing for just a few minutes in an optimistic way first thing makes me look forward to the day ahead. As I journal about how I plan to make the most out of the day, I focus on the positive emotions I expect to feel. This often takes the form of predicting feelings enjoyment or relaxation but also quite often includes feelings of purpose and a sense of growing or learning during some of my daily interactions and activities. During the early week,s I found my perspective shifting, seeing tasks as steps towards my goals I often caught myself feeling as if I was looking forward to something, like a Christmas morning type of feeling, which when I examine it I can’t put my finger on a cause.
Positive anticipation, the expectation that things will turn out well, seems to be implicit in what it means to be optimistic. Martin Seligman presents Learning Optimism as a no-brainer; those who expect better outcomes in life develop better health habits, better immunity to illnesses and even higher longevity. Other research shows that dispositional (natural) optimists tend to report greater life satisfaction and better quality of life after experiencing setbacks compared with pessimists too (Scheier & Carver, 1992) .
So it seems that research does show that optimists generally tend to be happier and have better well-being than pessimists. But can a pessimist truly learn optimism?
I was intrigued to read that optimists are also thought to experience less negative emotions than pessimists when dealing with trauma or other challenging life events (Carver, Scheier, Miller & Fulford, 2009). I can well imagine that reducing the amount of negative emotions you experience can help you feel happier, but I do wonder how simple it is to learn optimism as a coping strategy if you are a natural pessimist as I believe I am.
Whilst I agree with Seligman that fixing the negative does not produce the positive, I have been wondering if anxious (negative) rumination is the opposite of optimism. It appears that happier people are by definition less likely to negatively ruminate and that dwelling excessively on problems not only reduces cognitive capacity available for tasks, it leads to negative emotions and can make the problems harder to resolve or manage
As I started to anticipate good outcomes, I seem to have less of a tendency to focus on the negative and catastrophize about the future. I began to worry slightly less about how I will handle things if I don’t get the desired outcome or have a bad day.
Next well-being post coming soon!
I borrowed an image from an amazing not for profit called Printed by Us who I stumbled upon online. They run screen printing workshops for homeless and vulnerable people in Sheffield who want to learn new skills and move forward. You can find out more by following them on Instagram @printedbyus or check out their website http://printedbyus.org
Carver, C.S., Scheier, M.F., Miller, C.J., & Fulford, D. (2009). Optimism. In Lopez, S. J., & Snyder, C. R. (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of positive psychology (pp. 303-312). New York: Oxford University Press.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2001). Why are some people happier than others: The role of cognitive and motivational processes in well-being. American Psychologist, 56(3), 239-249.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness. London: Sphere.
Scheier, M.F. and Carver, C.S. (1992) Effects of Optimism on Psychological and Physical Well-Being: Theoretical Overview and Empirical Update. Cognitive Theory and Research, 16, 201-228.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism. New York: Random House, Inc.