Blog #64 – Can we learn to be more optimistic?
By Dr. Mark Barry
One of the simplest ways to define optimism is to think of it in terms of the extent to which individuals have favourable expectations for the future. The more optimistic will imagine positive events awaiting them, while pessimists will tend to contemplate what is to come with more dread.
When we addressed optimism earlier in this series, we highlighted how most people skew at least a little more towards being optimistic than pessimistic, whether we realise it or not. While existing research evidence points to this being the case, the fact remains that some of us will be more optimistic than others, and some will tend towards more pessimistic responses when asked to project forward in our minds.
We could leave it there, simply conclude that some people are more optimistic than others, and then move on to other matters. However, an ever-deepening body of research also tells us that there is a range of positive spin-offs associated with being an optimist. For example, those among us who are more optimistic tend to have better mental and physical health, and in some studies a connection has been made between higher levels of optimism and longer life.
Findings such as these explain why it is not enough to merely identify who among us are more/less optimistic and then simply move on to the next matter on the order of business. We know there are benefits associated with higher optimism, so psychologists have gone on to ask the question that logically follows: Can people become more optimistic? That, in turn, has led to the development of psychological interventions that attempt to answer that question.
The stakes are high here. We know there are real benefits associated with greater optimism, and those benefits can impact on lives in a tangible way. Studies point to lower levels of depression, superior immune functioning, greater resilience in the wake of psychological trauma, and, as mentioned above, simply outliving others who are less optimistic.
So, knowing the benefits that seem to accrue from more optimism, how successful have psychologists been in developing interventions that work? Can we increase individual levels of optimism and can any such changes be sustained over time?
Intuitively, it may feel like optimism is wired into personality, and from there it is tempting to make the leap to concluding that our genes alone dictate our fate. This view would have it that some of us are literally born more optimistic than others and that there is very little we can do to change that. However, this is not necessarily the case. Indeed, if we are to have any hope for the possibilities of external intervention, then we need it to not be the case.
Optimism can be conceived of in different ways. We need not adhere to a perspective that posits it to be a rigid, almost pre-determined aspect of personality. Indeed, one of the most broadly accepted theories of optimism insists that there is more to it than that. According to this view, we can think of human nature as providing a baseline level that will vary between individuals, but then environmental factors kick in, with the unique circumstances and experiences of our lives further influencing the degree to which we are optimistic or pessimistic.
John M. Malouff and Nicola S. Schutte recently examined the available literature on the effectiveness of psychological interventions designed to increase optimism. In a meta-analysis published in The Journal of Positive Psychology in 2017, they reported on their extensive trawl through published and unpublished studies and trials. Their key inclusion criteria were that eligible studies needed to have included a control group and randomly allocated participants to either the active or control condition. This left them with 29 studies and more than 3,000 participants for their analysis.
Among the different approaches used were mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy, and self-compassion training, but the most effective intervention programmes tended to use the Best Possible Self intervention. You might recall that we looked at Best Possible Self earlier in this series, identifying Laura King as one of the pioneers of this approach, with her initial studies presenting participants with the following instructions: “Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realisation of all your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.”
So, Malouff and Schutte found that studies adopting this approach and using similar wording tended to report the best results, though in statistical terms these boosts to optimism were rated as medium as opposed to high.
Another key finding related to the timing around the post-test measurement of optimism, i.e., results tended to be best when measured directly after the programme. The implication here is that while the interventions were effective, the positive effects did not tend to be long-lasting. However, it is noted that this need not be regarded as a negative finding, given that short-term optimism boots can be invaluable to people, depending upon their circumstances.
It was also found that shorter interventions tend to be more effective than long-lasting ones, with this relating to the finding on Best Possible Self, as that approach is typically delivered over a short time period.
The authors conclude that it is possible to increase optimism through these interventions, but they stress several caveats with that overall finding, with three of those noted above, i.e., some approaches are more effective than others, shorter approaches work best, and the programmes analysed tend to yield short- rather than long-term benefits.
As well as suggesting new directions for fresh research, when evaluating their own work, they conclude: “In sum, the moderator findings suggest that optimism-intervention researchers might most wisely use the brief in-person Best Possible Self intervention, at least when they are seeking short-term effects.”
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.