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She had been job hunting for more than a year but had not had any luck. Justin had just finished a contract position in IT. He hadn't found another contract yet but was sure there was a job just around the corner. He thought Laura was unsuccessful because she was so negative. She put herself down and admitted that she couldn't totally let Justin into her heart because she didn't believe that he could really love her.
Justin came to see me. He said he had tried to be understanding about Laura's work situation, but if he gave her suggestions on how to present herself more positively, she said he was judging her.
Justin told me that if Laura kept telling him how worthless she was, she would finally convince him and the relationship would be over.
He also felt his love was never fully received or acknowledged.
The Psychology of Optimism and Pessimism: Theories and Research Findings
While Justin was optimistic, he was also stressed about being unemployed. Laura said she was already stressed about her own situation and wanted to know what he expected from her.
Justin said he needed her to reassure him that he would always have her in his life regardless of what happened. With your optimism you'll find something, as opposed to me, who no-one wants.
I explained to her that what she was trying to protect herself from was impossible. I wondered if she thought that by withholding love, or not allowing Justin's love in, she could save herself from the devastation she would feel if he left her.
I explained that it was too late. This coupled with the work of Shelley Taylor who argued strongly in her book Positive Illusions that positive distortions of personal attributes, mastery and assessment of the future are widespread and actually the sign of healthy, well adjusted people, heralded optimism as a desirable and positive trait.
Can an optimist date a pessimist?
They argued that optimism is associated with, and leads to, securing positive outcomes whereas pessimism is associated with greater negative outcomes Scheier and CarverScheier, Carver and Bridges Carver and Scheier see optimism as dispositional.
They have found that optimists report fewer physical symptoms, better health habits and better coping strategies. Even among a group who had experienced the bad outcome of being diagnosed with breast cancer Carver et al found that optimistic personality types experienced less distress, engaged in more active coping and were less likely to engage in avoidance or denial strategies. This was developed from the analysis and patterns of how people explained events that happened to them. Seligman developed this analysis into the field of optimism with several other colleagues.
He authored the books Learned Optimism and later The Optimistic Child to highlight the relationship between optimism and pessimism and certain styles of explanatory style. According to this perspective, those who explain away bad events with internal caused by themselvesstable will continue to occur and global will happen in other spheres of life causes are described as pessimistic whilst those who favour external, unstable and specific causes are described as optimistic.
These largely fall into three key areas; The main areas of challenge and qualification were as follows: Taking these in detail let us look at each area in turn: A tranche of studies sought to highlight the fact that pessimism had been somewhat demonised as the opposite end of optimism. Bromberger and Matthews found that although pessimism seemed to be associated with greater depressive symptoms and greater negative affectivity in middle aged women, pessimism was not a significant statistical predictor of later depressive symptoms once they had controlled for certain variables.
Peterson and Chang raise the point that upon closer look at many studies the more exact conclusion is that pessimism is associated with undesirable characteristics, not that optimism is associated with positive ones. Chang has found that it may be the decreased use of passive and ineffective coping strategies rather than the increased use of active coping efforts that distinguishes dispositional optimism and pessimism. Norem and Cantor highlight defensive pessimism as a coping style, which focuses around a specific context.
They looked at academic performance. The defensive pessimist in this context is one who anticipates and worries about a poor result despite a prior good track record. This is perceived as self protective and thus defensive in two ways, either acting as a buffer if it turns out to be right, or acting as a spur into action.
The result is that defensive pessimists tend to perform as well as academic optimists. Interestingly however, this is not true over the long term. After 3 years the defensive pessimists were no longer performing as well as the optimists, and moreover were reporting less life satisfaction and more psychopathological symptoms. Can Optimism Be Learned? The concept of psychological immunity to depression is an exciting concept.
However, the learned optimism programme as it stands may be more focused on stopping pessimism than enhancing optimism which is its own and different skill.
Furthermore, in the specific area of learning optimism amongst children, there have been eleven replications, of which eight replicated the results, whilst three found no effects. Whilst the results are impressive in the studies that work depression significantly reduced in children taught the optimism programme and with no boosters the optimistic child programme prevents depression for two years. However, by the third year the prevention effects fade Gillham and Reivich et al, Segerstrom argues that learning strategies that create the benefits associated with optimists are achievable.
She cites evidence that shows that optimistic people pursue their goals more doggedly, leading them to build resources through goal pursuit or effective coping with stress.
Robins and John have found that optimistic illusions of performance are more likely to be associated with narcissism than mental health. This research challenges the notion that optimism as a precursor for a happy and successful life is a given.
This area of research shows examples where optimism has proven to have poor outcomes. In his studies of unrealistic optimism, Weinstein, Weinstein and Kliein, has proved evidence of the harmful effects of optimistic biases in risk perception related to a host of health hazards.
Those who underestimate the risk, take less action. For example, Weinstein, Lyons, Sandman, and Cuite found that those who underestimated the risk of radon in their homes were less likely than others to engage in risk detection and risk reduction behaviours. The pendulum is swinging back now into a healthy middle ground which requests depth rather than breadth of study. The last decade has brought us research that is more sophisticated in terms of its preciseness in measurement.
There is now a general acceptance that optimism is separate from extraversion and neuroticism and positive effect. Carver and Scheier conclude that neuroticism is the most interesting and may hold sub-points connected to optimism and pessimism which they encourage researchers to analyse. The evidence strongly supports the notion that optimism is a strong predictor for positive outcomes even when controlling for mood, affect, and other personality dimensions.
More studies show positive outcomes than not, and no studies to date have shown pessimism as a predictor for healthy outcomes related to physical health. Research is encouraging that, whilst optimism may be dispositional, it can indeed be learned. It has less inherited aspects than some of the other dispositional traits and as such is responsive to interventions. Optimism is more what we do than what we are, and thereby can be learned.
This has exciting implications for application and interventions. References and Further Reading: Clinical, experimental and theoretical aspects. A longitudinal study of the effects of pessimism, trait anxiety, and life stress on depressive symptoms in middle-aged women. Optimism, pessimism, and postpartum depression.
Cognitive Therapy and Research, 11, Dispositional optimism and primary and secondary appraisal of a stressor: Controlling for confounding influences and relations to coping and psychological and physical adjustment.