Benefits of Optimism for Stress Management
We probably all know that optimism is better for our mental and physical health than pessimism, but:
- Why is it that some people are optimists and some are pessimists?
- How is pessimism detrimental to our health when trying to handle stress?
- How does optimism help us handle stress and improve our overall health?
- How can we change from being pessimists to optimists?
Why are Some People Optimists and Some Pessimists?
Whether we are optimists or pessimists seems to evolve around our explanatory style, in other words, whether we attribute outcomes to positive or negative causes, and this affects our ability to cope with stress.
Optimists, when confronted with stress, tend to 'see a light at the end of the tunnel,' whereas pessimists expect failure because they believe that the conditions that lead to failure surround them and are, possibly, within them.
Martin Seligman found that our individual attribution style - who or what we blame for our failures - and even the part of the world we live in, are parts of the answer. World-wide, stress is inevitable. But, it seems that self-focused Westerners are more likely to assume personal responsibility, whereas non-Westerners are less likely to take on the entire weight of a stressor because their cultures subordinate individualism to cooperation and a sense of community.
How is Pessimism Detrimental to Our Mental and Physical Health?
Pessimists - those of us with negative explanatory styles - tend to explain personal failures in global terms: "Everything is awful;" "It's always going to be this way;" "It's my fault, as usual." This type of explanatory style is often accompanied by anger, hostility, suppressed emotions, anxiety, depression, and harmful health behaviors such as smoking, over-drinking, and drug abuse, which behaviors lead to disease and reduced mortality.
How Does Optimism Help us Handle Stress and Improve Our Overall Health?
Barbara Frederickson's broaden-and-build theory asserts that positive emotions increase our physical, cognitive, and social resources, which in turn help us cope more effectively with stressful experiences and live healthier lives.
The benefits of optimism when dealing with stress are both direct and indirect:
- Direct: Studies show that optimism in law students under pressure directly caused drastic increases in cells that protect our immune system, compared to decreases in protective cell levels in pessimists.
- Indirect: Optimists tend to engage in beneficial health habits that further support their immune system.
Optimists also cope with stress differently:
- They are more likely to actively engage in direct problem-focused solutions when stressed. (See: How to Cope with Stressful Situations.)
- Optimists also perceive more control over stressful situations, which leads to more effective coping strategies, like seeking treatment for an illness.
How to Become an Optimist
Leonard Seligman (author of Authentic Happiness) believes that optimism can be learned. He teaches the ABCs of Optimism:
- Adversity: Learn to interpret difficulties in terms that are external ("It was the university policies that caused the problem"), temporary ("This was a difficult semester, but I'll get through it."), and specific ("So my career plans are on hold, but there are other positive parts of my life, and things will get better.").
- Beliefs: Mindfully practicing these optimistic explanations leads to healthier, more upbeat beliefs.
- Consequences: Healthier, more optimistic beliefs will prompt more positive health consequences.
Martin Bolt adds: Learning to counterargue, to offer alternative causes for the disappointment, to recognize that you are overreacting, and even to show that the belief is factually incorrect undermine the pessimistic explanation and enable you to cope with setbacks more effectively."