A typical description of optimism is that it is a stable and general tendency to expect the best. Based on more careful thinking and research, psychologists and other scientists have come up with two distinct but related ways to think about optimism.

Scheier and Carver’s view of optimism was introduced in a 1985 article in the journal Health Psychology.

More in accordance with the typical conception of optimism, Scheier and Carver (1985) have defined optimism as a stable tendency to “believe that good rather than bad things will happen” (p. 219).

This definition focuses on expectancies for the future. Martin Seligman and colleagues (e.g., Seligman, 1991) identified learned optimism, which is centered on an individual’s attribution process (process of attributing cause) of events that have already occurred. The optimist consistently uses healthy or adaptive causal attributions to account for events and experiences that have happened to him.

Scheier and Carver’s concept emphasizes expectancies of good or bad events or experiences (outcomes). In this concept, optimism is optimism regardless of the reason why the person expects good things. The person could be optimistic for various reasons, including a strong belief in her own abilities, a belief that other people like her and will help make good things happen, or a belief that she has good luck. The important defining feature is a belief in good outcomes and low likelihood of negative outcomes.

The learned optimism concept was introduced by Martin Seligman and colleagues (e.g., Seligman, 1991). When addressing the question, why did this bad thing happen to me? the learned optimist makes particular types of attributions (beliefs about causes of events).

The attributions the optimist makes are external, variable, and specific, contrasted with the internal, stable, and global attributions that the pessimist makes.

For example, in answering the questions, why did my boyfriend break up with me?

  • The optimist would look for reasons outside of the self— “He is immature”—whereas the pessimist would look internally: “I am unloveable.”
  • The optimist would see the situation as variable (unlikely to repeat)— “I have had other, positive relationships in the past, and I can in the future”— rather than stable: “I always get dumped in this way in all relationships.”
  • The optimist would make a specific attribution— “I am not doing well in the relationship arena right now, but my friendships are great and so is work”—whereas the pessimist would make a global attribution: “My whole life is going downhill.”

Learned optimism tends to focus more on attributions for negative events than attributing for positive events. Thus learned optimism is more about distancing oneself from negative outcomes than about linking oneself to positive outcomes (Snyder & Lopez, 2007).

Optimism is believed to have bases in both genetics and socialization in childhood. Researchers have found associations between an individual’s level of optimism/pessimism and the quality of family life in childhood (i.e., safety of the environment, degree of affection in parental relationship) experience of childhood trauma, divorce of parents, parents’ levels of optimism/pessimism, and other environmental factors.

Compared to pessimism, optimism is related to many positive outcomes, including positive work performance, effectively coping with illnesses such as cancer and AIDS, superior athletic performance, and coping well with starting college, to name just a few.

A number of programs have been developed to foster optimism in both adults and children. The Penn Resiliency ProgramOpens in new window was created to increase optimism and prevent depression and anxiety in early adolescence. The techniques can be used by psychological professionals in outpatient treatment and by teachers or counselors in a school setting.

The program begins by adapting the ABC model developed by Albert Ellis. The idea behind this model is that when an activating event (A) occurs, the emotional consequence (C) is caused by both the event itself and beliefs (Bs) that are produced by the individual experiencing the event. So, for example, if an individual fails an exam, the emotional reaction is a result of both the failing of the exam and the ideas or beliefs that the individual has. Individuals can modify their beliefs and thus modify their emotional reactions.

In the Penn program, children are shown cartoons with three panels. The “A” and “C” panels are presented and children are to fill in the “B” panel (a “thought bubble”) that would fit in the context of the “A” and “C” panels.

For example, in one cartoon, the “A” panel shows a student receiving an exam that has many answers marked incorrect. The “C” panel shows the student looking very sad. Children then complete a thought bubble.

They may write, for instance, “I am stupid” or “I keep failing.” After mastering this exercise, children are taught to identify their typical attributions as me versus not me, always versus not always, and everything versus not everything (this corresponds to internal versus external, stable versus unstable, and global versus specific). Once they can identify their attribution tendencies, they are taught to dispute those tendencies that are pessimistic.

The Penn program includes other techniques for fostering optimism, including assertiveness training, negotiation training, goal setting, including the one-step-at-a-time technique, and others (Penn Positive Psychology Center, 2007).

See also:
  1. Carr, A. (2004). Positive psychology: The science of happiness and human strengths. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
  2. Carver, C., & Scheier, M. (2002). Optimism. In C.R. Snyder & S.J. Lopez (Eds.), The handbook of positive psychology (pp. 231 – 243). New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Gillham, J., & Reivich, K. (2004, January). Cultivating optimism in childhood and adolescence. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591, 146 – 163.
  4. Scheier, M.F., & Carver, C.S. (1985). Optimism, coping, and health: Assessment and implications of generalized outcome expectancies. Health Psychology, 4, 219 – 247.
  5. Seligman, M.E.P. (1991). Learned optimism. New York: Knopf.
  6. Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S.J. (2007). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.