Positive Psychology And Optimism (Guide)

If you have never heard of the positive psychology movement, in 1998 Dr. Neal Mayerson, connected with Dr. Martin Seligman, renowned researcher, scholar, and author to explore the newly forming field of Positive Psychology. As they used social science to explore what is best about human beings, they discovered that a key construct in the science of Positive Psychology is character; specifically, the characteristics that define what's best about people.

There are some common misconceptions about positive psychology, both about what it is and what it is not. Positive psychology is a scientific approach to studying humans with a focus on strengths instead of weakness, building the good in life instead of repairing the bad, and taking the lives of average people up to “great” instead of focusing solely on moving those who are struggling up to “normal”.

Positive psychology focuses on the positive events and influences in life, including:

Positive experiences (like happiness, joy, inspiration, and love)
Positive states and traits (like gratitude, resilience, and compassion)
Positive institutions (applying positive principles within entire organizations and institutions)

As a field, positive psychology spends much of its time thinking about topics like character strengths, optimism, life satisfaction, happiness, well-being, gratitude, compassion (as well as self-compassion), self-esteem and self-confidence, hope, and elevation.

These topics are studied in order to learn how to help people flourish and live their best lives. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.

Positive Psychology is a great eye opener to the skills people can use in their everyday lives that can help lead to having a positive life. Simple things such as what you would tell yourself in a situation that would normally upset you, and it can get you into a mindset so that you train yourself to be able to handle situations that would typically anger yourself.

Similarly, optimism in positive psychology, is a trait that should become more common, judging by Winston Churchill's famous quote that 
"a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."
Optimism has been proven to improve the immune system, prevent chronic disease, and help people cope with unfortunate news.

Gratitude is associated with optimism and has been determined that grateful people are happier, receive more social support, are less stressed and are less depressed. Recent research indicates that optimists and pessimists approach problems differently, and their ability to cope successfully with adversity differs as a result.

Optimists have a generalized sense of confidence about the future, characterized by their broad expectancy that outcomes are likely to be positive.

Pessimists, on the other hand, have a generalized sense of doubt and hesitancy, characterized by the future anticipation of negative outcomes.


 Optimist Vs Pessimist?

Positive psychology research has found many advantages of adopting an optimistic viewpoint. Below are some of them:

Optimists experience less distress than pessimists when dealing with difficulties in their lives. For example, they suffer much less anxiety and depression.

Optimists adapt better to negative events (including coronary artery bypass surgery, breast cancer, abortion, bone marrow transplantation and AIDS).

Optimism is conducive to problem-focused coping, humour, making plans, positive reframing (putting the situation in the best possible light) and, when the situation is uncontrollable, to accepting the situation’s reality. They are capable of learning lessons from negative situations. Thus optimists have a coping advantage over pessimists.

Perhaps surprisingly, optimists don’t tend to use denial, whilst pessimists often attempt to distance themselves from the problem. Optimists are not simply people who stick their heads in the sand and ignore threats to their well-being. For example, they attend to health warnings and usually discover potentially serious problems earlier rather than later.

Optimists exert more continuous effort and tend not to give up, possibly assuming that the situation can be handled successfully in one way or another. Pessimists, on the other hand, are far more likely to anticipate disaster – and, as a result, are more likely to give up.

They report more health-promoting behaviours (like eating a healthy diet or having regular workout session) and enjoy better physical health than pessimists. Optimists seem to be more productive in the work place.

Can Optimism Be Learnt?

Quite simply – yes. Although there may well be a genetically inherited component to optimism, and early childhood experiences certainly shape our optimistic-pessimistic viewpoint, we can use several strategies to counter pessimism.

The first of these is a Disputing strategy, introduced by Martin Seligman in his best-seller Learned Optimism. We usually employ the skill of internal disputing when we are falsely accused of something by someone else. We think to ourselves, for example:

‘That’s not right. It’s him who is not listening, it’s not me. I always listen before reaching a conclusion’.

However, when we falsely accuse ourselves of something (e.g. not being capable of dealing with a difficult situation) we don’t tend to dispute it. The key to success is careful monitoring and recognition of our thoughts. Once a negative thought is detected, we can consciously dispute that thought and try to look at possible alternative outcomes.

Changing and monitoring your Explanatory Style is another useful strategy. Explanatory Style refers to the way in which we explain the causes and influences of previous positive and negative events.

Pessimistic Explanatory Style means we use internal, stable and global explanations for bad events and external, unstable and specific explanations for good ones. People who use this style tend to appraise bad events in terms of personal failure.

Optimistic Explanatory Style, on the other hand, is characterized by external (leaving one’s self-esteem intact), unstable, and specific (depending on circumstances) explanations for bad events, and by the opposite pattern for good ones.

Specifically, optimistic people believe that negative events are temporary, limited in scope (instead of pervading every aspect of a person’s life), and manageable. That is why Martin Seligman defines optimism as reacting to problems with a sense of confidence and high personal ability. Of course, optimism, like other psychological states and characteristics, exists on a continuum. 

People can also change their levels of optimism depending on the situations they are in.


How Does Optimism Effect Physical Health

In one study of women who were undergoing painful treatment for breast cancer, optimism plays a role in their recovery. Multiple studies have investigated the role of optimism in people undergoing treatment for cancer. Optimistic people experience less distress when faced with potentially life-threatening cancer diagnoses. 

Optimism also predicted less disruption of normal life, distress, and fatigue. In this case, optimism appeared to protect against an urge to withdraw from social activities, which may be important for healing.

People who tend to be more optimistic and more mindful also have an increase in sleep quality. There is also evidence that optimism can protect against the development of chronic diseases. 

A sample of middle-aged women were tested for precursors to atherosclerosis at a baseline and three years later, the women who endorsed greater levels of pessimism at the baseline assessment were significantly more likely to experience thickening arteries, while optimistic women experienced no such increase in thickness.

Optimism can have an effect on a person’s immune system, as well. Five studies have also investigated optimism and disease progression in people infected with HIV. Ironson and colleagues (2005) found, in a large sample, that optimism and positive HIV immune response were linearly related: people highest in optimism had the best suppression of viral load and a greater number of helper T cells, both important parts of the progression of HIV.

What this means is that optimism appears to have a unique value among the factors that compose a person’s immune system. Thus, it appears that an optimistic outlook appears not only to be strongly positively related to a healthy immune system but also to better outcomes for people with compromised immune systems.

It appears that optimism is uniquely related to positive affect. This means that optimists are generally happier with their lives than pessimists. Optimists are also able to recover from disappointments more quickly by attending to positive outcomes to a greater extent than negative ones.

Litt and colleagues (1992) examined optimism and pessimism in couples undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF) attempts. In this study, 41 women and their husbands were interviewed two weeks prior to the IVF attempt and two weeks after a subsequent pregnancy test. Among the women who received a negative pregnancy test, optimists were better able than pessimists to cope with failed fertilization attempts by endorsing thoughts like “this experience has made our relationship stronger”.

Pessimists were more likely to develop depressive symptoms and to feel personally responsible for the failure of the IVF attempt. This study suggests that optimists are better able to cope with disappointment by attending to positive aspects of the setback. Optimists are also more likely to engage in problem solving when faced with difficulties, which is itself associated with increased psychological well-being.

However, when good things happen to pessimistic people, they tend to describe them as temporary and very narrowly focused. For example, if the young baseball player were to get a base hit (a good thing) in an important game, as a pessimist, he would tend to see that base hit as a temporary, passing fluke that would surely not be repeated.

Optimists and have a distinct explanatory style. When the executive struggled with the presentation (a bad thing) she recognized the struggle as a temporary thing that only applied to that particular presentation and that future presentations have the potential of being much better.

In a nutshell, the pessimist describes bad things as permanent and pervasive and good things as temporary and narrowly focused. The optimist describes bad things as temporary and narrowly focused and good things as permanent and pervasive. Hope as an aspect of positive psychology, is a construct which closely relates to optimism, although the two are not identical. 

Rick Snyder, one of the leading specialists in hope, represents it as an ability to conceptualize goals, find pathways to these goals despite obstacles and have the motivation to use those pathways. To put it more simply, we feel hopeful if we:
  • Know what we want
  • Can think of a range of ways to get there
  • Start and keep on going

It’s not hard to guess that being hopeful brings about many benefits. For example, we know that hope buffers against interfering, self-deprecatory thoughts and negative emotions, and is critical for psychological health. In the domain of physical health, people who are hopeful focus more on the prevention of diseases (e.g. through exercising).

Athletes with higher levels of hope are more successful in their performance. Furthermore, based on research with college students, it appears that hope bears a substantial relationship to academic achievement.

Self-esteem, is also a part of positive psychology, it always involves a degree of evaluation and this may have either a positive or a negative view of ourselves. Self-esteem also known as self-worth is the extent to which we like, accept or how much we value ourselves.

High self-esteem means one have a positive view point. This tends to lead to:
  • Confidence in our own abilities
  • Self-acceptance
  • Not worrying about what others think

Whiles low self-esteem means one have a negative view of point, this tends to lead to:

  • Lack of confidence
  • Want to be/look like someone else
  • Always worrying what others might think

Where a person’s ideal self and actual experience are consistent or very similar, a state of congruence exists. The development of congruence is dependent on unconditional positive regard. To achieve self-actualization they must be in a state of congruence.

For example, your parents are industry expects who are respected and admired in the community, and experience tells you that in order to be happy, you need to be smart and earn a higher income. 

Your Ideal Self might be someone who excels in your, industry and spends a lot of maintaining that status with constant self improvement through learning and practice, and does not get worry about temporary failures. If your Real Self is far from this idealized image, then you might feel dissatisfied with your life and consider yourself a failure.

Self-concept tends to be more malleable when people are younger and still going through the process of self-discovery and identity formation. As people age, self-perceptions become much more detailed and organized as people form a better idea of who they are and what is important to them.

A number of factors can impact self-esteem, including how we compare ourselves to others and how others respond to us. When people respond positively to our behavior, we are more likely to develop positive self-esteem. When we compare ourselves to others and find ourselves lacking, it can have a negative impact on our self-esteem.


Congruence And Incongruence

As mentioned earlier, our self-concepts are not always perfectly aligned with reality. Some students might believe that they are great at academics, but their school transcripts might tell a different story.
According to Carl Rogers, the degree to which a person's self-concept matches up to reality is known as congruence and incongruence. 

While we all tend to distort reality to a certain degree, congruence occurs when self-concept is fairly well aligned with reality. Incongruence happens when reality does not match up to our self-concept.

Self-concept is who we think we are, the picture we have of ourselves, plus the picture we think others have of us. Self-concept plays an important part in our overall wellness. It affects the ways we look at our body, how we express ourselves and interact with our friends, and it even influences how we make decisions. The potential for a positive self-concept lies within each of us. Self-concepts can be changes.

It would be impossible to list all of the benefits of positive psychology, but in general, the greatest potential benefit of positive psychology is that…It teaches us the power of shifting one’s perspective.

This is the focus of many techniques, exercises, and even entire programs based on positive psychology, because a relatively small change in one’s perspective can lead to astounding shifts in well-being and quality of life. Injecting a bit more optimism and gratitude into your life is a simple action that can give you a radically more positive outlook on life.

Given the impact of shifting one’s perspective, positive psychology’s benefits spring from research that shows us how to harness this shift and maximize the potential for happiness in many of our everyday behaviors. Gratitude is a big contributor to happiness in life, suggesting that the more we cultivate gratitude, the happier we will be.

Feeling positively about ourselves is a major factor in whether we are satisfied with our life or not. A high self-esteem aids us in navigating relationships, confidently seeking growth and achievement, as well as experiencing positive emotions and dealing with adversity.

Having life-satisfaction comes from uncovering our life purpose and living out our personal mission and vision. When we are living from a purpose, we can develop a greater sense of meaning for what happens in our life, and a positively correlated topic with this is religiosity. Having a spiritual or religious relationship seems to aid in the cultivation of purpose and meaning.

Most of these variables are interrelated and build on one another, and they can be learned and developed if we are willing to put in the time to grow in these areas. Determine where you feel you could use more balance and development and set some goals to bring more of this into your life.

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