The most popular metaphor to explain optimism is the concept of ”glass-half-full.”
Optimists have a built-in attitude to be hopeful all the time and consider the possibilities of good things happening in life.
The word ‘optimism’ comes from the Latin word ‘optimum,’ meaning ‘the best.” In psychology, optimism or dispositional optimism is a set of beliefs and traits that help individuals in reflecting on the positive aspects of life rather than the negative ones. It is a personality pattern that displays resilience and personal strength.
Optimism is all about how we perceive things. Consider the following example:
A and B are two individuals of the same age and background. Both of them are undergoing stressful separations from their respective long-term marital relationships. The emotional turmoil has completely shattered both these persons equally. However, B decides to focus on his career and tries to move on in life. On the other hand, A gets emotionally stuck and fails to foresee any good things that might ever happen to him after this.
Clearly, in this instance, B is more optimistic than A, even though they are undergoing similar circumstances in life. Optimism is essentially a mindset – the way we shape our thoughts and choose to attend to them decides how positively we can address our troubles.
Inculcating optimism, no matter how difficult it may seem, is a prime focus of contemporary person-centered psychotherapy. This article highlights some of the best optimism tools and activities that we can use to instill hope and cultivate a positive outlook within ourselves, people we live with, or our clients.
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A Look at Optimism Theory
Research on the dynamics of optimism has fascinated psychologists and mental health workers for a long time. There are two fundamental models or approaches that explain optimistic personality – the dispositional model and the explanatory model.
The Dispositional Theory of Optimism
The Dispositional Model of Optimism was the first wave of research which explored the impact of hopefulness on better lifestyle and mental health. Psychologists following this approach highlighted optimism as a crucial aspect of humans’ success in evolution (Segerstrom, 2006).
Charles Carver and Michael Scheier introduced the term ‘dispositional optimism.’ They argued that it is the presence of positive traits that increases the chances of something good happening to us. The dispositional theory of optimism suggests that optimism leads to positive consequences in life, and pessimism leads to stressful outcomes and increased dissatisfaction (Scheier and Carver 1992, Scheier, Carver, and Bridges 2001).
The basic tenets of the dispositional theory of optimism are:
- Optimism is a built-in trait or personality disposition.
- Optimism is directly associated with reduced depression, anxiety, and stress.
- Optimistic individuals are overall healthy – both physically and emotionally.
- Optimism calls for increased resilience and coping strategies.
- A positive outlook helps people to accept themselves unconditionally. Optimistic individuals are less likely to engage in denial or avoidance defense mechanisms (Chang et al. 1997).
The Explanatory Model of Optimism
Martin Seligman derived the explanatory model of optimism from his famous concept of ‘learned helplessness.’ This approach explained optimism as the way people perceive and interpret events more than their in-built personal traits.
According to the explanatory theory of optimism, people who perceive failure or stressful life events as personal shortcomings are pessimists. Optimism, as Seligman explained, is the cognitive ability to understand the current situation as it is, and work for changing things in favor of ourselves (Buchanan and Seligman, 1995).
5 Examples of Using Optimism in Therapy
There is ample evidence proving the role of optimism in promoting mental health and well-being. Confidence in psychotherapy is practiced in different forms, including empathetic communication, group activities, role-plays, objective tests, and situational games.
Any psychological condition that accompanies negative thinking and unbearable distress can be the right place for using optimistic interventions. Some examples where optimism is used as a psychotherapeutic conjunct are:
- Major depression that exists independently or is an aggravation from the bipolar syndrome.
- Postpartum blues, a condition new mothers often experience. While the causes of antenatal depression may be physiological or hormonal imbalances, using cognitive measures for boosting optimism helps clients regain their inner strength.
- Post-traumatic stress disorders – especially cases of sexual violence and domestic abuse.
- Bereavement and loss of close ones.
- Terminal illnesses such as cancer and allied problems like loss of hair after surgery.
Recent studies on the effect of optimism on victims of natural disasters found out that clients who received positive interventions could cope better with their situation. They were able to nurture hope, among others, as well (Van der Velden et al. 2007).
Choosing the right optimism tools is vital for getting the desired consequences. Here are some common questions that most professionals and help-seekers want to know before they decide which intervention would work best for them.
- What is the relationship between hope and optimism?
- Can we learn optimism?
- Can a pessimist become an optimist?
- Is gratitude related to optimism?
- How does optimism affect our physical health?
- Is optimism more useful than positive thinking?
- How do we determine if we are optimists or pessimists?
How to Encourage Optimism in Kids
Disappointment and hopelessness in childhood are frequent. Helping kids overcome negative thoughts from an early age can go a long way in making them self-reliant hopeful individuals in the future.
- It calls for better health.
- Optimism implies better academic and extracurricular performance.
- It builds resilience and strength to sail through tough times.
To encourage kids to think better of themselves and their lives, here are some strategies parents, teachers, and counselors can use.
Modeling positive self-talk is a great way to promote optimism in kids. For example, parents can talk about their day at work and invite kids to share about their day at school.
Exchanging simple thoughts about what they liked about today, what made them feel bad, and discussing how they are planning to make the most of the next day can be a simple yet powerful start to cultivating positive thinking in a child.
Empathy begins with acknowledging the child’s feelings. Children who feel heard and attended at home usually grow up to become conscious and empathetic individuals.
Parents and teachers can use simple statements such as ‘I can understand how you feel,’ or ‘ I would have felt the same if I were you’ to model empathetic behavior.
Learning how to empathize teaches a child to understand and accept, and helps him to reflect the same during stressful times later.
Focus on effort rather than results
Seligman stressed the role of the right attitude in building optimism. Positive thinkers always focus more on the process than the results. For example, encouraging children to participate in activities without worrying about who wins and who loses is a great message for nurturing this faith.
Parents who appreciate children for their efforts are successful in raising kids who believe in themselves and never stop trying.
Recalling happier times
Negative thinking may drive a child to believe that bad times never end. As caregivers or counselors, we can motivate them to recall past experiences, which made them sad initially, but they could later overcome it.
Asking questions such as ‘How did you feel when you got a better outcome than you had expected?’ can help them introspect and find hope from within.
A shift from negative to positive perspective can be both the cause and the consequence of optimism. Helping children understand that it is practically impossible always to have things the way we want is a significant step to make them insightful.
Once they learn to manage their expectations and look into any matter with rational reasoning, they automatically tune in to their optimistic self.
Can We Test and Assess Optimism?
Assessments of optimism have stemmed from two main perspectives:
- The expectancy perspective that has tests that focus on the expectations we have from ourselves and our future.
- The attributional perspective that has optimism tests measuring individual habits and actions that shape their perception.
Let us have a look at some of the popular assessments of optimism that are widely used in mental health today. We will talk about both the perspectives of optimistic interventions to help you choose what is best for you.
2 Optimism Tests and Questionnaires
The Learned Optimism Test
The Learned Optimism Test is an adaptation from Seligman’s works. It is a self-report questionnaire with 48 questions of hypothetical life situations. Each item has two possible responses, out of which the participant selects the one that suits him best.
The instructions of the Learned Optimism Test mention that there are no right or wrong answers involved here and the results are relative measurements of how optimistic a person generally feels. Below is a brief overview of the test. You can find the full version, as well.
|Questions||Tick the response that you think describes you the best|
|Response 1||Response 2|
|You and your partner resolve a nasty fight.||It is because you forgave him/her this time.||It is because you are generally forgiving.|
|Your partner surprises you with a nice gift.||It might be because he/she just got a salary hike||It is because you gave him/her something the other day.|
|You get flowers from a secret lover.||It is because that person finds you attractive.||It is because you are a popular person.|
|You get lost while driving to your friend.||It is because you missed the turn.||It is because your friend didn’t give the right directions.|
|You were at the peak of your health this year.||It is because I was around other healthy people.||It is because I took good care of myself.|
The Optimism Test is a short online self-assessment that gives an accurate score of a person’s O.Q. or Optimism Quotient. The questionnaire contains ten questions on a 4-point scale. The summation of the scores provides an estimate of how optimistic or pessimistic the person is.
The scores are interpreted in three categories, as shown below
- 0-40 -> Less Optimistic.
- 40-80 -> Moderately Optimistic.
- 80 and Above -> Highly Optimistic
Here is a brief snippet of the form. You can take the full test, as well.
|1. Household chores to you are:|
|2. In the morning, you wake up being:|
|3. Your views about your work are:|
|4. Your objective in life is:|
|5. Neighbors to you are:|
2 Activities and Exercises (incl. PDF)
Tapping Into Your Inner Optimist
This activity primarily concentrates on the difference between positive thinking and negative thinking.
The participants in this practice move between two chairs and embody their pessimistic and optimistic selves each time. The test administrator asks situational questions and requests the respondent to imagine himself thinking negative and positive about it.
As the respondent switches from optimistic to pessimistic thoughts, he changes position between the two chairs. At the end of the session, the respondents come up with their experiences of positive and negative thinking and evaluate which pattern of thought made them feel better.
You can learn more about this exercise from the Positive Psychology Toolkit.
Realistic Optimism was a part of the Umbrella Project, a popular emotional awareness program for school children. It is a set of activities aimed at increasing awareness about positive thinking and Optimism among young respondents.
Exercises in this program include:
- Sharing valuable inputs on the meaning of realistic Optimism and why it matters to us.
- Exchanging personal experiences of dealing with a problematic situation with positivity.
- Showing videos explaining Optimism in real life.
- Helping students to imagine themselves being realistically optimistic and writing their views in a journal.
- Group activities of role-playing and role modeling with Optimism as the key takeaway.
You can learn more about these exercises here.
2 Useful Worksheets
Creating an Optimistic Mindset Worksheet
This worksheet was introduced as a positive intervention in emotional resilience training and became a popular measure for optimism in mental health and psychotherapy as well. The sheet is straightforward and provides meaningful insight into how the respondent generally feels about his life experiences.
Participants, at first, think about a good and unfortunate incident that recently happened to them. Then they go ahead to answer the questions in the worksheet and choose an option that they think is most appropriate.
The answers provide an appropriate direction as to whether the person tends to think optimistically or not. It is excellent for self-motivated individuals who wish to become more positive in their outlook and take life one day at a time.
Below is a brief overview of the test.
Part 1 – Think of a negative incident that recently happened to you and answer the following questions.
Was the incident the result of :
- Your inability (Pessimist)
- External factors (Optimist)
How did the incident make you feel?
- More negative things will happen to me (Pessimist)
- This is a one-time occurrence (Optimist)
What does this negative incident mean?
- More bad things are coming to me in other areas of life (Pessimist)
- This is a temporary setback (Optimist)
Part 2 – Think of a positive experience that recently happened to you and answer the following questions.
Why did the event happen?
- Because of my abilities (Optimist)
- Due to external factors (Pessimist)
What does it imply?
- More positive things can happen in life (Optimist)
- This is a one-time fluke (Pessimist)
This incident proves that:
- More success awaits in the future (Optimist)
- This happened by chance and would never happen again (Pessimist)
Seligman’s Worksheet on Learned Optimism
This worksheet is purely based on Martin Seligman’s work on learned optimism and follows the classical A-B-C-D-E model of creating a positive mindset. The A-B-C-D-E is an acronym for:
A – Adversity or paying attention to any adverse incidents, thoughts, and feelings.
B – Beliefs and how they get impacted by pessimistic thoughts.
C – Consequences of negative thoughts and feelings.
D – Dispute or confronting the negative thoughts and attempting to change them.
E – Energizing the self to be more optimistic in the future.
Seligman’s worksheet contains several situational examples and scenario tests, all of which follow the A-B-C-D-E model. The test helps participants challenge their pessimistic selves and become positive thinkers. You can learn more about this exercise.
A Take-Home Message
Embracing optimism doesn’t make us immune to stress and worries. Optimism teaches us how to see what is going wrong and still be hopeful that it can be turned right.
As a positive psychology intervention, optimism partly helps in building resilience, teaches us radical acceptance, and motivates in the form of hope to keep going. The tools and exercises mentioned above can be the starting point of knowing why we feel negative and what measures we can take to instill optimism within us.
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