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Optimism, Optimized

The tactical game of getting ahead

Is it better to approach life with great hope or a sense of doom? A glass-half-full attitude is generally beneficial to your mental, physical, and emotional health, but stark realism is sometimes a smart tactic. While every situation is unique, research offers some tips on when to brace for impact and when to stay upbeat. —Jill Coody Smits


After taking the SAT, you wonder for weeks whether your score will be embarrassing or brag-worthy.

Expect the worst. Lowering expectations while awaiting test results can reduce disappointment at the big reveal, according to a University of Florida study--meaning you're less likely to get upset (regardless of your score) than if you'd been counting on a 99th-percentile mark. Preparing for bad news helps in many moment-of-truth situations, such as hearing health outcomes, researcher Kate Sweeny adds.


You learn that your daughter's fellow eighth-graders were caught drinking wine coolers and wonder if she'll follow suit.

Expect the best. If you envision your teen swilling beer, you may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mothers who pass along low expectations raise kids who embody the party animal persona, Iowa State research shows. But children whose moms believe they'll be temperate teens shun alcohol. Parents can relay their expectations explicitly or via behavior-shapers like setting a strict curfew.


A week after your honeymoon, your first big fight leaves you questioning whether you'll make it to your Golden Anniversary.

Expect the best. Long-term love thrives on rose-colored glasses. Optimistic partners engage in "approach" strategies to problem-solving, employing cooperation and refraining from attacks, research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows. Less optimistic couples often engage in "avoidant" strategies (think: cold shoulder) that further strain the relationship.


You've nabbed the degree; now you're applying for your first job.

Expect the best--realistically. Confident college grads are more successful job-seekers than pessimistic ones, unless they venture into fantasy, research notes. Whereas positive expectations ("I'm a strong candidate") reflect past successes and acknowledge the value of hard work, fantasies ("I'll be flooded with job offers!") disregard attainability. Thinking you're a workforce wunderkind can lead to laziness, NYU researcher Gabriele Oettingen explains.


You're dying to beat your boss at the office tennis tournament next month.

Expect the worst, then the best. While training, imagine your boss is Boris Becker and focus on your weak service return. Self-doubt motivates you to practice harder and results in a stronger performance, according to a Michigan State study. But on match day, envision repeatedly crushing his serve. Confidence just prior to and during competition strongly correlates with winning.


Your doctor suggests a flu shot, but you hate needles.

Expect the worst. Hypochondria notwithstanding, a little unease goes a long way in preventive health behaviors. Worrying about breast cancer is a strong predictor of getting screened, and people get flu shots simply because they anticipate regretting not getting the vaccine, studies show. Overall, of course, optimism begets health, but if a kick in the butt leads to a shot in the arm, so be it.