Optimism is a positive mental outlook towards future circumstances. Optimists are people who implicitly believe that positive outcomes will materialise for them. The inherent expectation is a general improvement in circumstances.
Rather than the outcome of specific goals, an optimist’s positivity depends on the perception of general goals being achieved. People can express their optimism about a specific deal or how well they predict a specific outcome will turn out, but this would more accurately be described as an expression of confidence in a specific outcome. Unless the meaning of such a statement was saying, “I believe this outcome will be positive, but if it’s not, I’m sure things are going to be all right anyway.”
This focus on general improvement is true to the original meaning of the word. Originally optimism referred to a philosophical concept regarding the belief that “the greatest good will prevail somehow”. This concept caused the creation of a classical satirical work called Candide1, by Voltaire, which is considered part of the Western canon, and it brought the word “optimism” into popular language more than 200 years ago.
Candide was Voltaire’s way of shooting holes in his day’s philosophical concept of optimism. It portrays a young man, called Candide, who has been indoctrinated with the philosophical notion that “the greatest good will prevail somehow”. The novel then follows his journey as his comfortable lifestyle abruptly changes for the worst. He is thrown into a world of hardship for himself and the people he cares most about. Candide is continually disillusioned and loses his appreciation of universal optimism by recognising that the notion “the greatest good will prevail somehow” significantly depends on personal circumstances.
The source of an optimist’s resilient expectation of positive outcomes is a line of scientific enquiry. It has been proven that optimists have healthier, more adaptive, immune system functioning, and their positive mental outlook infuses adaptive ideas, attitudes and judgements towards a positive outcome.2
This positive offset is often associated with the perception of control people believe they have over an outcome. A perception of control has been proven to reduce stress hormones within individuals that believe they have an element of control over an outcome – even when they have no control whatsoever.3 These two aspects (expectation of positive emotion and lack of stress) of an optimist’s disposition make their likelihood of becoming ill lower, and their likelihood of recovering from an illness better than non-optimists. This direct link between perception and immune system functioning is starting to be evidenced. It’s understandably significant to mental, emotional and physical health.
People’s perception of their ability to cope with a situation is also highly associated with both reducing stress and adapting behaviour towards success. The perception of one’s ability to cope effectively with affective – emotional – consequences is important to the stability of one’s personality.4
As portrayed in Candide, the experience of optimism is not entirely positive. Theoretically, two principal factors can significantly contribute to an optimist’s perception of the world.
First, a dispositional optimist’s outlook – a person who intrinsically expects positive outcomes – can derive from their attachment style. Amassing more than sixty years of empirical research, attachment theory shows how children learn to interpret the world through their association with their primary caregiver – evolutionarily the mother.5 If toddlers are met with an appropriate and secure response when expressing their distress and needs, they implicitly inherit a disposition that’s positive in nature. The majority of all stressful events experienced have ended positively, and their needs have been satisfied. On the other hand, if toddlers express their distress or needs and they are met with no response (or an inappropriate response) repeatedly, then the perception of the world they inherit becomes fractured with anxiety and maybe even despair. This anxiety laden outlook is part of the child’s implicit-memory that accumulates over time and is used to predict future outcomes. The predictions bias their perceptions towards interpreting negative future events.
This, extremely concise description of attachment theory, gives an idea of how repeated positive and negative outcomes accumulate in a child’s memory, and how they’re used subsequently to bias interpretation of future events. As illustrated in Candide, people can be dispositional optimists because they have always been around positive outcomes.
Second, ignorance or cognitive-avoidance can be employed to block or suppress losses from being consciously recognised, so sadness is not experienced. The same mechanisms can also be used to block fears of future outcomes that would otherwise make a person feel anxious. It has been proven that people who cognitively avoid thinking about their feared outcome experience less stress hormones than people who do. Only, the low trait-anxiety of high cognitive-avoidance is offset by elevated physiological arousal (stress) if the cognitively avoided event is encountered.6 The dynamics of avoiding recognition of negative possibilities can therefore underpin optimism by eliminating stressors that would contradict a perceived positive outcome, but at the risk of the person becoming overwhelmed into a state of crisis if an avoided feared stressor is encountered (see Ignorance).
When unknown combinations of the two main considerations above are factored in, the analysis of optimism is complex. The satirical appraisals of optimism are concerned with both. The first consideration above regards the conditioning effect of positive circumstances and warns of the naiveté of wholeheartedly thinking “the greatest good will prevail” without concerted effort. The second consideration regards the ignoring of feared possibilities and the experience of crisis when the ignored possibility happens.
Therefore, the health benefits that are evidenced as associated with optimism seem to apply more, but not exclusively, to the first consideration regarding attachment theory.
Additionally, attachment to a significant individual, who positively contributes to a person’s life consistently, should not be underestimated for its ability to instil optimism and cultivate gratitude. When children mature and reflect on the memories of someone who purposefully contributed to their life in positive ways, the affect is often gratitude. Not only does such a lucky child remember general positive outcomes, but they are effectively inoculated with a mass of memories that make them feel gratitude towards those who are significant to them. Gratitude is the prosocial emotion. It’s an elixir of life. The health benefits of such a vault of memories is immense.
When considering optimism, it’s important to keep in mind that both negative and positive emotions are needed in appropriate proportions for optimal healthy functioning.7 Healthy mental, emotional and physiological states are not maintained by maximising positive emotions and minimising negative emotions. Combinations of both positive and negative emotions are necessary for a person to adapt to changing and unpredictable circumstances.8
Optimism refers to one’s perception of coping with both known and unknown challenges. A general improvement in quality of life materialises due to positive outcomes. Negative emotions such as frustration, anger and disgust are often needed to cope with challenges and achieve positive outcomes.
The association of optimism with repeated successful outcomes suggests that a person’s level of optimism is generally malleable. That it’s adjusted to their recent – months to years – history of success. If people continually overcome everyday stresses, no matter how small they are, it will contribute to their accumulation of implicit memories. Especially when it’s coupled to gratitude, this accumulation of subconscious feeling from positive outcomes seems to be at the heart of healthy optimism.
Latin. Optimum = the greatest good or best.
French. Optimisme (1737) = ‘belief that good ultimately will prevail in the world’ brought from philosophy into popular usage by a satire on the idea called Candide by Voltaire, considered part of the Western canon.
1. Confidence regarding future success.
2. A general expectation of positive events.