Definition and Conceptualization
Optimism describes a positive orientation toward the future. Optimists are people who have the habitual tendency to expect positive future outcomes even when difficulties arise (Scheier and Carver 1992).
Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun,
one’s feet moving forward.
Although the roots of a positive mindset and its consequences have been a topic of philosophical discussion for centuries, the empirical study of optimism began with Scheier and Carver’s (1985) seminal work on outcome expectancies. Optimism has been understood as “the extent to which people hold generalized favorable expectancies for their future” (Carver et al. 2010, p. 879). A host of studies have demonstrated that optimism is associated with various positive outcomes in different areas of life. The launch of positive psychology brought new attention to research on this construct and resulted in a rapid increase in the number of studies in this field. Despite the increase in research in this area, some aspects such as issues involved in the measurement of optimism have still remained a topic of controversy.
The present chapter will review the construct of optimism as a disposition, its theoretical underpinnings, its measurement issues, and its benefits. It will outline other forms of optimistic thinking as well as the potential drawbacks of optimism.
The Self-Regulation Model of Dispositional Optimism
The most influential theoretical framework of optimism is the self-regulatory model of dispositional optimism proposed by Scheier and Carver (1985) in which human activity is explained in terms of goal regulation. Based on expectancy-value models of motivation (Atkinson 1964), two important motivators of goal pursuit have been proposed: value as the subjective importance of a goal and expectancy as the confidence that one can achieve this goal. Optimists are characterized by their habitual tendency to expect that positive outcomes will unfold for them. They have a general sense of confidence, which drives them toward the pursuit of their goals even when they are confronted with difficulties, and thus, they show stronger overall engagement. Pessimists, by contrast, tend to harbor more doubt, which results in disengagement when they face barriers that prevent them from reaching their goals.
Measurement of Dispositional Optimism
Dispositional optimism is commonly measured with the Life Orientation Test (LOT; Scheier and Carver 1985). The measure consists of four positively worded items, four inverted items, and four filler items, which have been used to “disguise (somewhat) the underlying purpose of the test” (Scheier and Carver 1985, p. 224). Sample items are: “I’m always optimistic about my future” and “I rarely count on good things happening to me” (inverted). The Life Orientation Test Revised (LOT-R; Scheier et al. 1994) includes three positively and three negatively worded items (and four filler items). The original scale and the revision are highly correlated, and evidence for the internal consistency, stability, and validity of these scales has been reported (Scheier and Carver 1985; Scheier et al. 1994).
The LOT and the LOT-R were initially conceived to be unidimensional with higher scores on these measures representing higher optimism. Later studies have shown that a two-factor model in which positively and negatively worded items represent optimism and pessimism as two separate but correlated constructs fits better than the unidimensional model (Chang et al. 1994; Marshall et al. 1992). Other studies have suggested that this distinction may be based on method variance (Rauch et al. 2007). In attempting to provide a measure that distinguishes between optimism and pessimism, Chang et al. (1994) developed the Extended Life Orientation Scale (ELOT), which includes six optimism and nine pessimism items.
Constructs that Are Related to Dispositional Optimism
Previous research has investigated how optimism as the habitual tendency to expect positive outcomes is related to other more global personality traits. Studies have shown that optimism is a separate construct that is distinct from other related constructs but that there are still some similarities.
Personality traits. Various studies have found that dispositional optimism is positively related to extraversion and negatively related to neuroticism (e.g., Sharpe et al. 2011). A meta-analysis showed high correlations between dispositional optimism and self-esteem (Alarcon et al. 2013). Despite these overlaps, research has shown that optimism predicts life outcomes beyond these variables (e.g., Scheier et al. 1994).
Empirical data have further shown moderate positive correlations between dispositional optimism and general self-efficacy (Alarcon et al. 2013). Both optimism and self-efficacy involve positive expectations regarding future events and the belief that one’s goals are likely to be achieved. Still, self-efficacy implies the active and successful involvement of the person himself or herself in this process, whereas optimism refers only to the belief that there will be a positive outcome – regardless of how.
Explanatory style. Pessimism has also been found to be related to the tendency to attribute negative events to internal, stable, and global causes (Seligman et al. 1979). Optimists, by contrast, tend to use a more favorable or optimistic explanatory style when explaining events. They more often attribute negative events to unstable or external causes and positive events to internal and stable causes. The correlations between attributional styles and optimism and pessimism have been shown to be small to medium in size (e.g., Hjelle et al. 1996; Reilley et al. 2005).
Hope. Another construct that is similar to optimism is hope. Hope involves the perceived ability to achieve a desired goal and the motivation to initiate and maintain action to reach this goal (Snyder 2002). Although optimism and hope are strongly correlated, they seem to predict various outcomes differentially (e.g., Alarcon et al. 2013). For instance, optimism but not hope was shown to be related to the strategy to improve one’s emotional state by viewing negative events in a more positive way (e.g., Bryant and Cvengros 2004).
Empirical Correlates of Dispositional Optimism
Previous research has investigated the consequences of optimism for physical and mental health as well as social relationships or performance. Although there are a number of longitudinal studies on optimism, most previous empirical work has been cross-sectional (for reviews, see Carver et al. 2010; Scheier and Carver 1992; Rasmussen et al. 2009).
Physical health and health behaviors. Studies have consistently shown that optimism is linked to several positive health outcomes. For instance, studies have shown that optimistic patients experience less pain, recover faster, and return earlier to their previous activities. During surgery, optimists were also found to be less likely to experience infarction than their pessimistic counterparts (Scheier and Carver 1992). In a recent meta-analysis (Rasmussen et al. 2009), optimism was found to predict both subjective (e.g., symptoms and pain) and objective health outcomes (e.g., survival and immune system parameters) regardless of sample and instrument type and even when effect sizes were adjusted for health status, demographics, or psychosocial factors. Studies have shown that optimism also predicts preventive behaviors in the realm of health such as engaging in physical exercise, employing healthy dietary habits, and avoiding sex with unknown partners. It has also been shown to improve health behaviors among individuals with various physical health problems (for a review, see Carver et al. 2010).
Well-being and coping. Positive effects of optimism have further been documented in many studies on life satisfaction, quality of life, and emotional well-being. Studies have shown that optimism has negative relations with depressive symptoms, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation (Alarcon et al. 2013). One of the mechanisms through which optimism is related to well-being outcomes is coping. Optimistic people tend to cope in active ways, and this helps them to better adjust to challenging and stressful situations. They are also more likely to use approach coping strategies such as acceptance and reappraisal and are less likely to use avoidance coping such as denial and withdrawal (see Nes and Segerstrom 2006). Compared with other people, optimists also show more flexible coping behavior, which is an adaptive ability that helps people cope effectively with different stressors (Conversano et al. 2010).
Social relationships. Whereas the links between optimism and mental and physical health have been well-documented, the relation between optimism and the quality of social relationships is less clear. There is some evidence that optimists are perceived as attractive (especially if the perceiver also has an optimistic outlook) and that optimism has beneficial effects on relationships (Böhm et al. 2010). In fact, optimistic individuals report higher relationship satisfaction and better conflict management even after the effects of a variety of factors such as neuroticism, extraversion, self-esteem, and length of relationship are controlled for. In addition, optimists are less likely than others to withdraw from conflicts and are more likely to report higher perceived social support and engage in more constructive communication (Srivastava and Angelo 2009).
Performance. Some research has linked optimism to better performance in school and in the workplace. It seems that this link is largely due to the tendency of optimists to have higher expectations for success and to put more effort into achieving their goals, as optimists overall do not have better abilities than pessimists do (Tenney et al. 2015). However, the link between performance and optimism seems more complex. A recent study showed a curvilinear relationship (Croom and Bono 2015).
Development of Optimism as a Disposition
There is a genetic basis to dispositional optimism. Twin studies have identified a genetic component. Estimates of the size of this component have been found to vary from 20% to about 35% (e.g., Caprara et al. 2009). However, environmental factors are also highly relevant. A variety of childhood experiences play important roles in the development of optimism such as experiences of failure or being exposed to negative events. In addition, parenting factors such as support, trust, warmth, acceptance, and good communication promote the development of optimism in children, whereas parental hostility, neglect, and rejection are negatively associated with this trait (e.g., Hjelle et al. 1996).
Interventions to Support Optimistic Thinking
Although dispositional optimism is a relatively stable personality trait (Scheier and Carver 1985), it can be increased through interventions. For instance, in the best possible self intervention, participants are asked to project themselves into the future and imagine that they have met all their life goals. In the three good things intervention, every evening, participants are asked to write down three good things that happened to them that day. Such interventions have been shown to increase a positive outlook on life and general well-being (see Koydemir et al. 2017; Sin and Lyubomirsky 2009).
Forms of Optimistic Outlooks
The understanding of optimism as a disposition in terms of generalized expectancies proposed by Scheier and Carver (1985) is the most popular approach to optimism. However, this approach does not capture the broad variety of reality-exceeding ways in which people can view themselves, their surroundings, and the future (Taylor and Brown 1988). Previous research has investigated various phenomena that describe such manifestations of optimistic thinking.
Positive illusions. Most people have the general tendency to embellish their positive characteristics and to overestimate the control they have over events – a phenomenon that has been termed positive illusions (Taylor and Brown 1988). Research has shown that positive illusions have some benefits for people. For instance, HIV-infected persons who viewed their situation more positively than medical prognoses showed a more positive development and lived even longer than persons with a moderate view (Reed et al. 1999). However, the findings on the effects of positive illusions have been mixed, and there is evidence that positive illusions can also have negative consequences such as when people underestimate threats (see Schütz and Baumeister 2017).
Unrealistic optimism. Unrealistic optimism can be regarded as a specific form of positive illusion. It describes the tendency to believe that one is more likely to experience positive events and less likely to experience negative events than others (Shepperd et al. 2013). Previous research has suggested that although unrealistic optimism may lead to good feelings in the short run, it can promote risky behavior (Schütz and Baumeister 2017).
Strategic optimism. Sometimes people express their optimistic expectations strategically: In strategic optimism, in order to cope with challenging performance situations, people set high expectations and actively avoid thinking about what may occur in the impending performance situation (Norem 2008). Strategic optimism has been suggested to increase confidence and to support performance (e.g., Norem and Illingworth 1993), but results have been inconsistent (Spencer and Norem 1996).
The Drawbacks of Optimistic Thinking
Previous research has demonstrated that optimism offers various benefits, and little is known about its potential boundaries. However, as outlined above, optimistic expectancies can also lead to some negative consequences. Optimists may underestimate risks and may persist in engaging in maladaptive strategies to reach their goals; such tendencies can cause negative effects on their health, well-being, motivation, and performance.
For instance, a study showed that people who scored high on dispositional optimism underestimated the probability that they would lose in gambling and showed more risky gambling behavior than pessimistic people (Gibson and Sanbonmatsu 2004). Moreover, optimists seem to suffer more from intense long-term stress than pessimists do – an effect that seems to be due to their tendency to use an active coping approach, which in turn can predispose optimists to strain and exceed their resources (Chang and Sanna 2003).
With respect to unrealistic optimism, a study showed that unrealistic optimism predicted risky and delinquent behavior following alcohol misuse in college students (Dillard et al. 2009). Another study found that unrealistic optimism increased people’s likelihood of getting heart disease as people seemed to underestimate possible threats to their health and ignored behaviors that could prevent ill health (Ferrer et al. 2012). Furthermore, studies have identified negative consequences of excessive optimistic expectations on performance through lack of preparation (e.g., Brown and Marshall 2001). This research suggests that optimists are more likely to take success for granted and to put forth less effort.
Previous research on optimism has shown a number of positive effects of optimistic thinking on mental and physical health and has provided clear evidence for the benefits of an optimistic attitude toward the future. However, studies have also identified some potential drawbacks of optimism. To better understand these different effects, future research should investigate the potential moderating and mediating mechanisms of the relations between optimism and various life outcomes. Moreover, previous research has suggested that optimism may have different short-term and long-term consequences. A study showed that when a sample of retirees rated their future selves in physical and social domains, positive views were positively related to present well-being but negatively related to well-being 1 year later (Cheng et al. 2009). Longitudinal research is needed to extend the understanding of such different effects of optimism.
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