Just from looking at the title, you are probably assuming that in the Positive Psychology world optimism is a main-stay in the diet. Yes, optimism does have benefits related to well-being. However, we also know that it can be overdone and that pessimism rightly has a seat at the table. Think of optimism and pessimism as a wonderful dinner with a beautifully complimenting glass of wine. Too much of either one will end in a bad night; the meal alone is missing that finishing touch, and well, I think we all know what can happen if the indulgences in abundant libations is the theme for the night.
Optimism leaves the door open for possibility, but without that dash of pessimism, we might be stuck on the couch just waiting for money stuff our mailboxes. That dash of pessimism is that tiny voice that says “yes, you can sit on the couch and hope for money to fill your mailbox, or you can make a plan and go out and earn your empire”; work required. Too much optimism can also be costly in situations where the risk and stakes are high. Dr. Seligman described this by saying, “when the cost of failure is large and catastrophic, you don’t want to use optimism skills.”1 What he was talking about is that we can’t rely totally on optimism when lives, communities, livelihoods are on the table. The prudent option would be to have a well thought out plan that has been scrutinized thoroughly. Fire-fighters, rescue workers, surgeons and many other professionals are grounded in optimism by that “pessimistic” grappling hook that reminds them “better safe than sorry.
But hold on now; don’t go filling your bag with pessimism just yet. Pessimism swung for far limits thinking. Good events are justified away by being a fluke or pure luck, and bad events are clearly their fault. These limiting thought patterns do indeed have an impact on well-being. The term dispositional optimism was coined by Charles Carver and Michael Scheier.2 The approach refers to the way in which people viewed personal global outcomes. For example, optimists expected there was more good in life than bad. Additionally optimists saw more pathways to positive outcomes. Carver and Sheier subsequently found that optimists reported fewer physical symptoms associate with illness, had better health habits, and possessed better coping strategies.2
What if you want to be more optimistic? Is it possible? According to Dr. Seligman optimism can be learned. In his book Learned Optimism: How to Change your Mind and your Life Dr. Seligman explains the importance of life perspective and the two paths. The first being one that sees only the bad and imagines the worst: pessimistic. The second perspective if open-ended for possibly and sees bad events in their least threatening light, or and temporary; the optimistic view.3
Here are a few ways you can strengthen you optimistic side:
1. Be mindful of your thoughts and challenge negative patterns
2. Give yourself options and alternative reasons for events
3. Flip the coin- if you have a negative thought, try thinking about just the opposite outcome
4. Find a mantra that suits you “it could be worse”, “I will survive” “ain’t no mountain high enough”…
5. Live in the now, don’t continuously revisit negatives that hold no meaning at the present time
6. Give yourself a pat on the back for all success
7. Be OK with failure- what can I learn from this?
8. Hold control of what is manageable and be Ok with not controlling some things- let them go
9. Cut yourself some slack. You are not ALAWAYS going to be optimistic, besides, that not good for you either
10. Know your positive go to people and elect to connect and work on those relationships
1Freedman, J. (1999). Choosing optimism: An interview with Martin EP Seligman, Ph.D. Retrieved from:
2 Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1992). Effects of optimism on psychological and physical well-being: Theoretical overview and empirical update. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 16, 201-228.
3Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned optimism; How to change your mind and your life. New York, NY: Vintage Books
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