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When Adversity Strikes, Optimism Helps Us Get Through

It leads to effective coping, attentional bias & substitutes for social support.

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” - Helen Keller

Autumn Dawn by James Jordan Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Autumn Dawn by James Jordan Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Of all our psychological states, optimism is among the most important. It is the core belief that our future will be full of good, positive experiences, not bad, negative ones. To some degree, optimism is part of our natural make-up. But it’s also something that we can grow in a systematic way. Why is this important?

Our optimism dictates our world-view. It affects how we see and experience every aspect of our life. Psychological research shows it has strong effects on our physical health and mental well-being. In previous blog posts, I have written about why having an optimistic outlook is good for our health, and how it can help entrepreneurs succeed.

Yet, optimism is beneficial in other life domains beyond health and entrepreneurship. In this blog post, I want to consider three ways in which optimism affects how we respond when facing adverse life events like a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, or a layoff.

#1. Optimists cope with setbacks more effectively, by meeting it head-on.

Every setback demands a response. Even remaining passive and doing nothing is a response. Psychologists refer to potential our cognitive and behavioral responses to setbacks as “coping strategies.” They have found that people use two distinct types of coping strategies. The first is problem-focused coping. The person tries to find out the main cause and then deal with it directly and forcefully by trying to change or eliminate it. For instance, she may try to logically analyze why the hardship occurred and then determine solutions. The second is emotion-focused coping, in which the individual finds ways to reduce or manage the emotional aftermath of adversity. For example, a person may try to distract himself to avoid ruminating about the event, or he may seek emotional support from friends or even turn to religion for solace.

So what coping strategies do optimists use? A 2006 meta-analysis by social psychologists Lise Solberg Nes and Suzanne Segerstrom found that optimists were strategic in their choices. When their distress was something they could control such as an impending lay-off, optimists tended to take charge and figure out ways to solve the problem, cognitively or emotionally. They started looking for other jobs, tightened their belts, and asked their social network for help. However, for an uncontrollable setback like a serious health diagnosis, they used problem-focused coping, but also tried to keep their negative emotional responses in check. For instance, they sought emotional support, turned to religion, or tried to accept their changed state. They faced their challenge head on; they did not avoid or try to run away from the problem.

#2. Optimists pay attention selectively to the setback’s positive aspects.

In any adversity, each of us has control over what aspects to focus on as we work our way through it. Research has found that optimists show a distinct “attentional bias”. They tend to focus more on positive aspects of the bad situation and avoid attending to its negative aspects, even when it’s affecting them directly such as pain after a fracture or fear after a layoff. To explain this effect of optimism, it’s worth quoting the authors of one study conducted with patients of chronic illnesses at length:

“Optimistic asthma patients were less likely to focus on their symptoms when they were worsening, and optimistic fibromyalgia patients were less likely to focus on their symptoms when they were experiencing undesirable events. This diminished attentional focus on symptoms when symptoms worsen or when undesirable events occur is likely an adaptive stress response associated with optimism. It extends to the dynamics of daily life with… the conclusion that optimists are advantaged by their reluctance to dwell on problems or stressors.”

The biased attention that optimists give to the positive aspects of their quandary has two important benefits, sense-making and benefit-finding. First, it allows them to make sense of the misfortune that has occurred, and to form an understanding of why it happened. For instance, after the sudden death of a close friend, an optimist might say “This is part of life” or ascribe it to God or faith. The second benefit of attentional bias is that it enables optimists to find something positive and meaningful even within the negative experience that will allow personal growth and be useful in the future. After their friend’s demise, for example, they may feel they grew in maturity and now have a more nuanced perspective about life.

#3. Optimists are less dependent on social support.

Friendship by Hartwig HKD Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Friendship by Hartwig HKD Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

When faced with hardships, the social relationships and the interactions we have with others give us solace, not to mention that we may receive significant tangible help to deal with it. Obviously, such social support is very powerful. However research shows that when the misfortune is permanent or long-lived, optimistic people continue to adjust better to their changed, worsened circumstances. On the other hand, less optimistic people, need constant, ongoing social support, and don’t do so well if it diminishes. In one study of African American women who had been treated for breast cancer, the authors found that social support only benefited women with low optimism levels by improving their adjustment experience; for those with high optimism, increased social support did not have additional benefits. Another study with patients with advanced cancer found similar results. The authors concluded:

“Among participants with low optimism, social support was associated with fewer anxious symptoms, while among participants with high optimism, social support was not associated with fewer anxious symptoms.”

About Me

I teach marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter @ud.