Optimism has been broadly defined as the expectation that things will go well in the future. It can be broken down in terms of how an individual explains the causes of good and bad events. Optimists explain bad events as having external, unstable and specific causes (This exam was really hard) and good events as having internal, stable and global causes (I’m really good at this subject).
Pessimists are the opposite – they explain bad events as having internal, stable and global causes (I’m no good at exams) and good events as having external, temporary and specific causes (The exam was easy this time). Optimism has been shown to have a positive effect on health, sporting success, work success, avoiding depression and other mood disorders. You can test your optimism and pessimism yourself at http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/.
We can also distinguish between Little Optimism and Big Optimism. Little Optimism is about the small things in life, like whether I will be able to find a parking spot. Big Optimism is about broader, more general things, like whether the world will solve the greenhouse gas problem. Little Optimism may directly influence your behaviour and lifestyle choices, whereas Big optimism may influence your general mood, and perhaps your immune system.
It is possible to have different levels of the two types of optimism, and different expectations about different types of goals. You may be optimistic about the future, and so don’t see the need to recycle, but pessimistic about whether you will get a parking spot or get the promotion at work.
Are optimistic people happier? If you are working towards your goals in the expectation that you will achieve them then I would argue that you are. If you consider all effort to be hopeless then you won’t aspire to reach goals and you won’t even try try to achieve them. I was at uni in the early 1980s when we all thought there would be a nuclear war at any moment, and I’m sure that expectation did nothing to help us do well at uni.
We can learn to be more optimistic. Martin Seligman advocates disputing your pesimistic beliefs and expectations, and if you do this enough it replaces the habits you learned when you were younger. He also recommends teaching optimism to your children by letting them master tasks on their own and showing them that their actions have consequences – not just negative consequences, but positive ones as well.
Seligman gives a lovely example of the gales of laughter his daughter produces when they play the game of banging on the table – she bangs once on the table, everyone else at the table bangs on the table. She then bangs three times on the table, and then so does everyone else. She is learning that she can have an effect on the people she loves, and that that she matters to them.
Surely optimism, and general happiness, is made of stuff like this.
Christopher Peterson, A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Martin E.P. Seligman, Learned Optimism. Sydney: Random House, 1992.
Martin E.P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness. Sydney: Random House, 2002.