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Optimism: How to Live Longer and Be Happier

Reasons to be be cheerful

There are lots of good reasons for being an optimist. Chief among these are the research findings that optimists tend to live longer than pessimists and that they are much less likely to succumb to depression. They are also, generally, much more fun to be around.

Martin Seligman has done a lot of research into the behaviour of both optimists and pessimists in his book Learned Optimism (Vintage 2006) . Optimists tend to view anything adverse as temporary, specific and external whilst pessimists will view an adverse situation as permanent, pervasive and personal. These two styles produce very different outcomes.

Pessimists tend to become despondent quickly, give up on difficult tasks when adversity strikes (after all they think it will last forever!) and are much more likely to suffer from depression. Pessimists tend to view a situation as "all about me" guaranteeing failure will affect them more. The more optimistic style means that people will persevere for much longer, try different approaches and if they don’t succeed are likely to chalk it up to “a bad day at the office” - Something "specific"rather than something about themselves or the situation in general.

If we can adopt the optimist’s style then we are likely to live longer and be happier. Without being delusional about our chances of success, it has been proved that you are much more likely to succeed with an optimistic, positive viewpoint. Negativity encourages us to focus on what could go wrong and what you pay attention to is usually what you get. Whilst it is important to maintain a good sense of reality by checking out the pros and cons of any situation, a sunny outlook will reap rewards.

If you are generally cheerful you are more likely to get help when you need it - who wants to help a grump? Humans thrive on success and so if we feel that someone is always expecting failure we are likely to shy away from them. We do not want to be regarded in the same light as someone who always expects the worst. So if you are naturally someone who errs on the side of pessimism, start challenging your negative thoughts. Are things “always” bad or just “sometimes”? Do you fail at everything you try or are some tasks more difficult for you than others (like everyone else on the planet!)?

Try to be specific when recognizing your faults and difficulties as this then leaves plenty of room for things you may succeed at. You may be poor at checking invoices but brilliant on the shop floor. However you are not simply "rubbish at work" because of one or two shortcomings. Check your negative comments, they give a one sided view of who you are. When facing challenging situations try not to use maximising words such as "always" and "never". Try not to see situations as "nightmares" or "horrendous". By using negative labels you hamper yourself from the outset, let alone anyone else who might have been willing to help you resolve a problem.

Similarly optimists need to remember that not everything is going to work out brilliantly and someone who is constantly looking on the bright side despite all evidence to the contrary can be very annoying and will seem to be out of touch with reality. A balanced view of any situation with a leaning towards the most optimistic outcome is probably a healthy way to view most situations.

I had a fabulous TA tutor called Steve during my postgrad studies. Steve used to say "Don't want for it to happen. Don't wait for it to happen. Just be ready if it does." This is a pretty good philosophy. Try to expect the best whilst remaining able and ready if and when the worst occurs; Remember, hope springs eternal for the optimist and hope is what keeps us going.

Copyright: Atalanta Beaumont 2016

[1] Seligman, M, Learned Optimism, Vintage 2006

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