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Why optimism matters

More than 100 studies have been conducted to measure the impact of optimism and pessimism on people's lives.

One of the key factors is that pessimism can be very insidious, pervading all parts of people's lives, causing them to lose heart and to give up. Research shows that people who have a pessimistic explanatory style are:

  • more susceptible to depression when things go wrong
  • more likely to underachieve
  • prone to passivity or helplessness when confronted with a stressful situation, such as a new job or leaving home for university
  • liable to under-perform at sport when faced with stress or defeat on the field of play
  • more likely to die from a heart attack following an initial coronary event, compared with people who have an optimistic explanatory style.

Some of this research is summarised in the evidence section. One of the reasons why optimists tend to be healthier than pessimists is that depression weakens certain hormones in the brain, sparking off a chain reaction that suppresses the immune system.

Optimists also pay more attention than pessimists to information that will help them reduce health risks.  A study by Dr Lisa Aspinwall, associate professor at the University of Utah, found that when subjects were given information about cancer and serious health issues, optimists spent more time than pessimists reading the severe risk material and they remembered more of it. It is because they are optimistic that they are prepared to bite the bullet and spend time attending to major health risks.

There is a simple explanation for the link between our explanatory style and the things that happen in our lives. Reivich points out that if you are a 50 year old man who smokes, drinks a lot of alcohol, eats a lot of red meat and has had a first coronary episode, then his explanatory style will have a big impact on the outcome. Pessimists will tend passive in the face of this bad news, rather than spurred into action to change their lifestyle and improve their health.

The doctor says 'You need to quit smoking, quit drinking and change your diet'.  But if you're a 'me', 'always', 'everything' type, then what will pop into your head?  Most likely you'll say to yourself something like 'It's in my genes, my father died of a heart attack, his father died of a heart attack, I'm just destined for this'.  And if that's your belief then that's going to dictate your behaviour, and you're going to be less likely to follow doctor's orders.  So there's nothing magical about the pathway through which explanatory style leads to real world outcome, explanatory style drives behaviour - and behaviour is what leads to outcomes.

'These are people,' says Aspinwall, 'who aren't sitting around wishing things were different. They believe in a better outcome, and that whatever measures they take will help them to heal.' 

Research led by Dr Mika Kivimaki in Finland concluded that optimism may reduce the risk of health problems and actually help a person recover after experiencing a serious life-changing event, such as death of a spouse or child. Following a major life crisis, pessimists tend to take more time off work than optimists.  

 'Pessimists frequently distance themselves from emotional events and this coping strategy may be less effective than using active problem-focused coping immediately after an uncontrollable severe event such as death of a family member,' said Dr. Kivimaki.

Pessimistic people face the real risk of giving up in the face of adversity, of passively accepting that they were born to draw the short straw in life. But we don't need to live like this. When bad things happen we should take action by striving to find the 'not me', 'not always', 'not everything' explanations, then focus our energy there. 

For some people it could mean the difference between life and death.

Optimism and Sport

Sports enthusiasts at every level are intuitively aware that the 'mental' part of performance can be just as important as the physical. Gymnastics is often said to 90% mental and 10% physical. Other sports see 'intangible' factors, such as confidence and a 'cool' head under pressure, make up more than 50% of success. 

Many will talk about 'being in the zone' when they perform at their peak. Olympic 100-metre gold medallist Linford Christie described his focus on the starting line as being like looking down a long, straight tune. His ability to blank out other competitors, the roar of the crowd, the flashbulbs, gave him those extra centimetres over his rivals. 

In sport, psychology matters - and at every level. If you go onto the squash court telling yourself that you've never beaten Joe before and that you're not going to beat him today, then the result is very predictable.

Optimism boosts sporting performance, both at team and individual levels. Research into baseball and basketball teams in the USA revealed that teams have their own explanatory styles. The explanatory style used by teams after a defeat or when under pressure in the last few minutes of a game will determine future performance, regardless of the quality of the team. Those who are optimistic in the face of defeat are more likely to be successful in their next game; those who explain setbacks negatively will perform more poorly.  Research into swimmers revealed that the same trend holds for individual athletes. Quite simply, when under pressure optimistic sportsmen and women try harder - and they recover from defeat more quickly.

After conducting detail study of sports teams and on individual swimmers, Martin Seligman included a list of 'What Every Coach Should Know' in Learned Optimism: _

  • Optimism is not something you can know intuitively. The ASQ (an optimism test developed by Seligman's team) measures something you can't. It predicts success beyond experienced coaches' judgments and handicappers' expertise.
  • Optimism tells you when to use certain players rather than others. Consider a crucial relay race. You have a fast athlete, but he's a pessimist who lost his last individual race. Substitute. Use pessimists only after they have done well.
  • Optimism tells you who to select and recruit. If two prospects are close in raw talent, recruit the optimist. He'll do better in the long run.
  • You can train your pessimists to become optimists.

Copyright: Centre for Confidence and Well-Being


 
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