The value of optimism

Dear colleagues,

Being optimistic is good for you. It improves your emotional well-being, fosters better relationships and provides protection against adverse events. It can, in many circumstances, lead to better health. So says Suzanne C. Segerstrom in Breaking Murphy's Law: How Optimists Get What They Want from Life - and Pessimists Can Too (New York: Guilford Press, 2006). Segerstrom, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, gives an accessible account of recent optimism research, including her own.

Segerstrom's most important point is that optimism is both a belief, that things will go well, and a practice. Whereas a pessimist may respond to obstacles by withdrawing and underachieving, an optimist will respond by formulating goals, planning and engaging with the issue. Optimism as a practice is self-fulfilling: it leads to greater effort, which in turn leads to better outcomes.

Like much psychological research, many of the studies of optimism have been done with university students. One study showed that optimistic and pessimistic students had pretty much the same goals, but differed in how they approached them. "First, the more optimistic students were, the more they expected to achieve individual goals in their daily lives ... Second, ... more optimistic students were also more committed to their goals." (pp. 48-49).

Commitment, or persistence, is an important factor: optimism is linked to greater persistence, something that scholars need in the face of rejections by journals or granting bodies.

Most people are optimistic, some much more than others. Optimism is partially inherited. There are also national variations. Australia is one of the 10 most optimistic countries, with only South Korea, Argentina, Greece, USA and Brazil being more optimistic, in terms of the percentage of people who think the next year will be better than the previous one. At the bottom of the pack are Austria, Belgium and Germany.

Segerstrom, having argued that optimism is a combination of beliefs and behaviours, gives advice on becoming more optimistic. "Optimism training" is a matter of focusing on positives. One worthwhile practice is to keep a log of three good things that happen to you each day. This has been shown to increase happiness.

Your current attitudes are not inevitable. The way to change them is to behave the way you'd like to be. In other words, fake it until it becomes you.

One practical way to do this is to write down your most important goals and your plans to reach them. Then write down three things you can do to achieve your most important goal. At the end of each week, check whether you've done those three things and, for each one, either keep doing it, modify it or replace it. Simple but powerful.

Segerstrom reports that many other scholars react to her optimism research sceptically, seeing it as biased and not serious. Apparently researching "negative" topics like depression, poverty and war is serious whereas researching positive topics means you're a Pollyanna. This reaction isn't logical but certainly helps explain why positive psychology has been neglected. "The Positive Psychology Prize was criticized for what was apparently perceived as bribery to entice young scientists to sign on with the positivity cult, like luring innocent children with candy. These critics apparently ignored the fact that I won the prize for work showing that optimism can be associated with suppression of the immune system." (p. 197).

Because of these attitudes, and the common perception of optimists as happy-go-lucky personalities, Segerstrom for a long time resisted describing herself as an optimist. Finally she came up with a definition of optimism with which she could identify: "You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control." (p. 199).


Brian Martin
21 January 2007

Go to

Brian's comments to colleagues

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website