Glass half full? – Exploring the Joy Superpower of Optimism

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill

Young people all over the world, especially in low and middle-income countries, are more optimistic about the future of the world than older generations, says a survey by Ipsos (2018). What makes our youth so optimistic – and are they onto something? Is our world in desperate need of more optimism, and does our mindset even matter in the end?

You may not be able to end poverty or achieve world peace with optimism, but it will certainly help you live a more healthy and joyful life. Keep reading to find out how!

Why you should be an optimist

The relationship between optimism and wellbeing has been studied loads, and the results leave no room for second-guessing – optimism has been shown to have tremendous benefits when it comes mental and physical health. Here are just some of the findings on the effects of optimism and our wellbeing:

Optimists have a lower risk of getting suffering from depression and anxiety disorders (Conversano at al. 2010). Optimism is also associated with the capability to deal better with difficult experiences and life’s inevitable hardships. In addition to this, optimism has been linked with lower stress levels (Soliah 2011). Compared to pessimistic people, optimists live longer, heal more quickly, and experience higher levels of overall health. Higher optimism is associated with lower risk of stroke in older adults (Kim et al. 2011), as well as healthy aging and healthy behaviors such as not smoking, partaking in physical activities and moderate alcohol consumption (Steptoe et al. 2006). Optimism has also been linked with various health-promoting behaviors, like good nutrition, spiritual growth, interpersonal relationships and managing stress (Soliah 2011).

If you haven’t already, you should try adopting a more optimistic mindset – it will definitely pay off, maybe even provide you with some additional years on this earth!

Here are some book recommendations to get you started:
Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain by Elaine Fox
Enlightenment Now by Steven Plinker (Bill Gates’s new favorite book of all time)
Learned Optimism – How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman (pioneer of positive psychology)

Don’t go to extremes

Despite all the benefits, research tells us that you might not want to go overboard with your optimism. Tali Sharot (2011) talks about the optimism bias, a bias well documented in psychology and behavioral economics. Essentially, it means that we have a tendency of overestimating the likelihood of positive events happening to us, and underestimating the likelihood of encountering negative events. For example, we underestimate our chances of getting divorced or getting sick with cancer at some point in our lives. We also expect to live longer than we should expect, based on objective measures such as our lifestyle.

“– studies consistently report that a large majority of the population (about 80% according to most estimates) display an optimism bias.”

The issue with optimism bias, or unrealistic optimism, is that it can lead to ill-advised behavior. Being too optimistic about the likelihood of negative events happening in the future can cause people to partake in harmful habits such as overspending, smoking, or unhealthy eating. It’s easier to take part in such activities when you have a mindset of “Oh, it’ll never happen to me.” In fact, it has been reported that extreme optimists are more likely to smoke and less likely to save money than mild optimists. It seems that most things are fine in moderation – even optimism.

Is your glass half full or half empty?

Would you consider yourself an optimist? Do you find extreme optimists annoying or uplifting to spend time with? Share your thoughts below in the comments, or on social media using the hashtag #joysuperpowers – we’re interested in hearing what you think about the topic, and would love to discuss! Also, don’t miss out on next Wednesday’s podcast episode on optimism featuring “That Optimism Man” Victor Perton, Nóirín Mosley and Jenny Boymal! You can find our podcast here, or on your preferred podcast platform – just search for The Art and Science of Joy.

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