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The Benefits of Optimism for Stress Management PDF Print E-mail
The News - Stress News
Monday, 02 July 2007

The Benefits of Optimism for Stress Management, Productivity and Overall Health

From Elizabeth Scott, M.S.,

Your Guide to Stress Management.

Try Optimism: Optimists Finish First!

Do you know someone who seems to always have a smile and a positive thought? Hardships are seen as ‘learning experiences’ by these people, and even the most miserable day always holds the promise for them that ‘tomorrow will probably be better’? Or are you yourself one of these people: full of optimism?

If so, you may feel that you experience more positive events in your life than others, find yourself less stressed, and even enjoy greater health and other benefits of optimism. This is not your imagination. Researchers like Martin Speligman have been studying optimists and pessimists for years now, and have found that an optimistic world view carries certain advantages:

The Benefits of Optimism

Superior Health: In a study of 99 Harvard University students, those who were optimists at 25 were significantly healthier at ages 45 and 60.

An Optimistic Attitude is Everything. Other studies have linked a pessimistic explanatory style with higher rates of infectious disease, poor health, and earlier mortality. Greater Achievement: Seligman analyzed the explanatory styles of sports teams and found that the more optimistic teams created more positive synergy and performed better than the pessimistic ones. Another study showed that pessimistic swimmers who were given falsely poor outcomes (were led to believe they’d done worse than they had), were prone to future poor performance. Optimistic swimmers didn’t have this vulnerability. (Research like this has led to some companies going out of their way to hire optimists, a practice that seems to be paying off.

Persistence: Optimists don’t give up as easily as pessimists, and are more likely to achieve success because of it. Some optimistic businessmen like Donald Trump have been bankrupt (even multiple times!), but have been able to persist and turn their failures into millions.

Emotional Health: In a study of clinically depressed patients, Seligman discovered that 12 weeks of cognitive therapy, which involves reframing a person's thought processes, worked better than drugs because changes were lasting, rather than a temporary fix. Patients who had this training in optimism had the ability to more effectively handle future setbacks. Increased Longevity: In a retrospective study of 34 healthy Hall of Fame baseball players who played between 1900 and 1950, optimists lived significantly longer. Other studies have shown that optimistic breast cancer patients had better health outcomes than pessimistic and hopeless patients. Less Stress: Optimists also tend to experience less stress than pessimists or realists, because they believe in themselves and their abilities, so they expect good things to happen. They see negative events as minor setbacks to be easily overcome, and positive events as evidence of further good things to come. Believing in themselves, they also take more risks and create more positive events in their lives.

'Explanatory Style' Explained:
What differentiates the three styles of thinking is something called ‘explanatory style’ or ‘attributional style’. This refers to how people explain the events of their lives. There are three facets of how people can explain a situation that can lean toward being optimists or pessimists:

Stable vs. Unstable: Changing across time or unchanging across time.
Global vs. Local: Universal throughout one’s life or specific to a part of one’s life.
Internal vs. External: Cause of an event as within oneself or outside oneself.

Realists see things relatively clearly, but most of us aren’t realists. Most of us, to a degree, attribute the events in our lives optimistically or pessimistically.

The pattern looks like this:
Optimists explain positive events as having happened because of them (internal). They also see them as evidence that more positive things will happen in the future (stable), and in other areas of their lives (global). Conversely, they see negative events as not being their fault (external). They also see them as being flukes (isolated) that have nothing to do with other areas of their lives or future events (local). For example, if an optimist gets a promotion, she will likely believe it’s because she’s good at her job (internal), and will receive more benefits and promotion in the future (global and stable). If she’s passed over for the promotion, it’s likely because she was having an off-month (local and unstable) because of extenuating circumstances (external), but will do better in the future.

Pessimists think in the opposite way. They believe that negative events are caused by them (internal), believe that one mistake means more will come (stable), and mistakes in other areas of life are inevitable (global) because they are the cause. They see positive events as flukes (local) that are caused by things outside their control (external), and probably won’t happen again (unstable). A pessimist would see a promotion as a lucky event (external) that probably won’t happen again (unstable and local), and may even worry that she’ll now be under more scrutiny! Being passed over for promotion would probably be explained as not being skilled enough (internal and global), and therefore expect to be passed over again (stable).

Understandably, if you’re an optimist, this bodes well for your future. Negative events are more likely to roll off of your back, but positive events affirm your belief in yourself, your ability to make good things happen now and in the future, and in the goodness of life. Fortunately for pessimists and realists, though we tend to be predisposed to our patterns of thinking, these patterns of thinking can be learned, to a degree! Using a practice called ‘cognitive restructuring’, you can help yourself and others become more optimistic by consciously challenging negative, self-limiting thinking and replacing it with more optimistic though patterns.

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