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What Is Optimism?

Winston Churchill once said, "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." Research shows that, on average, human beings are hardwired to be more optimistic than not.

To many psychologists, optimism reflects the belief that the outcomes of events or experiences will generally be positive. Others contend that optimism is more an explanatory style; it resides in the way people explain the causes of events. Optimists are likely to see the causes of failure or negative experiences as temporary rather than permanent, specific rather than global, and external rather than internal. Such a perspective enables optimists to more easily see the possibility of change.

What Does It Mean to Be Optimistic?

Optimism doesn’t mean engaging in wishful or fantastic thinking. It’s a way of looking at the world that gives more agency to the optimist as being at least partly responsible when life is going well. Optimists have healthier outlooks and tend to live longer than their more pessimistic counterparts; they also are less susceptible to the negative effects of illness, fatigue, and depression. However, an unrealistic belief that a person’s future will be full of only positive events can lead them to take unnecessary risks, particularly with their health and finances.

What are some of the benefits of being optimistic?

People who are more optimistic have better pain management, improved immune and cardiovascular function, and greater physical functioning. Optimism helps buffer the negative effects of physical illness and is associated with better health outcomes in general. Optimists tend to look for meaning in adversity, which can make them more resilient.

How does optimism affect romantic relationships?

While a positive attitude can bring partners closer together, too much optimism can lead to high expectations that are impossible for anyone to fulfill. Couples with too much optimism may also fail to develop the problem-solving skills they need during difficult times. This can lead to low relational quality.

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Optimism, Pessimism, and Realism

Some optimists consistently ascribe benevolent motives to others and interpret situations in the best possible light; others simply disassociate their internal mood from external circumstances, no matter how sticky. Being optimistic is not necessarily always the "best" strategy, though. Research shows that tempering a sunny disposition with a small dose of realism, or even pessimism, might be the best way to build resilience and achieve one’s goals.

Can being overly optimistic ever be harmful?

The tendency to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes and downplay the possibility of negative ones is called optimism bias. While an optimistic viewpoint can be helpful in motivating people to take chances and pursue their dreams, a dose of realism about the risks involved can make success more likely.

Who is more likely to be optimistic: men or women?

Evidence suggests that men and women share similar levels of optimism, but there are gender differences in what they are optimistic about. Men, for example, have been found to hold more optimistic views about the economic future. During economic downturns, however, the gender difference disappears.

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