Optimism: How It Can Work For You

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"An optimist is the human personification of spring."
—Susan J. Bissonette

Many of us have been challenged by the question of “is the glass half-full or half-empty,” with the accepted understanding that those who see the glass as half-full are optimists and those who see the glass as half-empty are pessimists. Modern western society has encouraged the optimistic point of view as the preferred option. The popularity of the “power of positive thinking” movement is an example of that sentiment. Yet, if you are an individual who has been trained to use skepticism or maybe your approach to life is to use pessimism (or realism depending on your point of view), then what? Well, researchers have found that there are benefits to using varying degrees of optimism.

Over the last 30 years psychologists have intently studied the effect of optimism and pessimism on the individual’s quality of life. After over 30 years of study, researchers have found that people with a pessimistic focus were more susceptible to depression and frequent health problems. Seligman attributes this to the "learned helplessness" response "that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter." "Learned helplessness" is influenced by one’s "explanatory style, which is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen." Therefore, having an optimistic explanatory style prevents depression, while a pessimistic explanatory style increases helplessness. Seligman determined that "learned optimism" could be used to improve an individual’s mood and health. This type of learned thought process has been found to work very well for young and middle aged adults. Following are some strategies on how to think about your situation and how to talk to yourself when you experience setbacks.

Situations for Choosing How to Use Optimism

  • If you are in an achievement situation (getting a promotion, selling a product, writing a difficult report, winning a game), use optimism.
  • If you are concerned about how you will feel (fighting off depression, keeping up your morale), use optimism.
  • If the situation is apt to be protracted and your physical health is the issue, use optimism.
  • If you want to lead, if you want to inspire others, if you want others to vote for you, use optimism.
  • If your goal is to plan for a risky and uncertain future, modify optimism with realism.

According to Seligman, the fundamental guideline for understanding when to use optimism is to ask yourself what is the cost of failure in a particular situation. The decision to employ optimism should be based on if the cost of failure is high, in that one’s life or one’s important relationship(s) are endangered. Therefore, "learned optimism" is founded on the principle of seeing life situations accurately, hence reducing catastrophic explanations for everyday circumstances.

Sometimes life events, whether negative or positive, can become overwhelming.

The Faculty Staff and Assistance Program (FSAP) provides confidential assessment, counseling, and referral services that support the wellbeing of both the individual and the organization. For more information or to make an appointment contact us at 415/476-8279 or visit the FSAP website.


  1. American Psychological Association, Learned Optimism Yields Health   Benefits, 1995 -1996.
  2. Maruta, T., Colligan, R.C., Malinchoc, M., and Offord, K.P., Optimists   Verses Pessimists: Survival Rate Among Medical Patients Over a 30-year Period,  Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 75(2), 2000.
  3. Seligman, M.E.P., Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, 1998.
  4. University of Pennsylvania, Learned Helplessness
  5. http://www.noogenesis.com/malama/discouragement/helplessness.html, 1998.