Can Optimism Get You Through These Tough Times?

Can Optimism Get You Through These Tough Times?

via Psychology Today by Susan Krauss Whitbourne

As you head into year two of the coronavirus pandemic, it might seem that there will never be brighter days in the future, much less a return to life as normal. You know that it’s important to remain optimistic, but even if you always tend to see the glass half full, it’s hard to glean any reason to see it as anything other than nearly empty.

Perhaps you actually know people who manage to remain cheerful in the midst of the chaos created by the pandemic. When they look at news stories, they focus on the ones that provide inspiration rather than the ones that focus on the dire numbers, statistics, and obituaries. How is it possible for people to dig down and find any cause to feel that life is good?

As it turns out, there is a personality trait that can explain this tendency to overlook the negative and find reason to celebrate each day as it comes. Optimism, from this perspective, reflects not some delusional form of denial, but a stable quality that allows people to feel genuinely hopeful no matter what’s going on around them.

According to a recent paper by Michael Scheier of Carnegie Mellon University (2020) and his team on the Optimism/Pessimism Meta-Analytic Consortium, an optimist is someone who will consistently agree with the statement “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best,” and would disagree with the statement “I hardly ever expect things to go my way” (p. 6).

The tendency to adopt an optimistic approach to life, Scheier et al. maintain, should translate into some specific psychological as well as physical advantages. As he and the Consortium authors observe, optimists have a track record of beating pessimists on such key metrics as problem-solving, relationships, and even overall quality of life.

Perhaps even more significantly, optimists are reported to be healthier than their less cheerful counterparts. The data suggest that optimists experience quicker recovery from surgery, less cardiovascular disease and stroke, lower blood pressure, and lower levels of blood cortisol, the stress hormone. Not surprisingly, based on this set of advantages, optimists also tend to live longer.

The question that the team investigated in their paper is whether it’s enough to be an optimist in order to experience these many benefits. Is optimism simply the opposite of pessimism, or could there be two traits along which people can independently differ?

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