Optimism is a mental attitude or world view that interprets situations and events as being best (optimized), meaning that in some way for factors that may not be fully comprehended, the present moment is in an optimum state. The concept is typically extended to include the attitude of hope for future conditions unfolding as optimal as well. The more broad concept of optimism is the understanding that all of nature, past, present and future, operates by laws of optimization along the lines of Hamilton’s principle of optimization in the realm of physics.
This understanding, although criticized by counter views such as pessimism, idealism and realism, leads to a state of mind that believes everything is as it should be, and that the future will be as well. A common idiom used to illustrate optimism versus pessimism is a glass with water at the halfway point, where the optimist is said to see the glass as half full, but the pessimist sees the glass as half empty.
The word is originally derived from the Latin optimum, meaning “best.” Being optimistic, in the typical sense of the word, ultimately means one expects the best possible outcome from any given situation. This is usually referred to in psychology as dispositional optimism. Researchers sometimes operationalize the term differently depending on their research, however. For example, Martin Seligman and his fellow researchers define it in terms of explanatory style, which is based on the way one explains life events.
As for any trait characteristic, there are several ways to evaluate optimism, such as various forms of the Life Orientation Test, for the original definition of optimism, or the Attributional Style Questionnaire designed to test optimism in terms of explanatory style. While the heritability of optimism is largely debatable, most researchers agree that it seems to be a biological trait to some small degree, but it is also thought that optimism has more to do withenvironmental factors, making it a largely learned trait. It has also been suggested that optimism could appear to be a hereditary trait because it is actually a manifestation of combined traits that are mostly heritable, like intelligence, temperament and alcoholism. Optimism may also be linked to health.
Explanatory style is different, though related to, the more traditional, narrower definition of optimism. This broader concept is based on the theory that optimism and pessimism are drawn from the particular way people explain events. There are three dimensions within typical explanations, which include internal versus external, stable versus unstable, and global versus specific. Optimistic justifications toward negative experiences are attributed to factors outside the self (external), are not likely to occur consistently (unstable), and are limited specific life domains (specific). Positive experiences would be optimistically labeled as the opposite: internal, stable, global.
There is much debate about the relationship between explanatory style and optimism. Some researchers argue that there is not much difference at all; optimism is just the lay term for what scientists call explanatory style. Others argue that explanatory style is exclusive to its concept and should not be interchangeable with optimism. It is generally thought that, though they should not be used interchangeably, dispositional optimism and explanatory style are at least marginally related. Ultimately, the problem is simply that more research must be done to either define a “bridge” or further differentiate between these concepts.
Philosophers often link concept of optimism with the name of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who held that we live in the best of all possible worlds, or that God created a physical universe that applies the laws of physics, which Voltaire famously mocked in his satirical novel Candide. The philosophical pessimism of William Godwin demonstrated perhaps even more optimism than Leibniz. He hoped that society would eventually reach the state where calm reason would replace all violence and force, that mind could eventually make matter subservient to it, and that intelligence could discover the secret of immortality. Much of this philosophy is exemplified in the Houyhnhnms of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
The term “panglossianism” describes baseless optimism of the sort exemplified by the beliefs of Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide, which are the opposite of his fellow traveller Martin’s pessimism and emphasis on free will. The phrase “panglossian pessimism” has been used to describe the pessimistic position that, since this is the best of all possible worlds, it is impossible for anything to get any better. The panglossian paradigm is a term coined by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin to refer to the notion that everything has specifically adapted to suit specific purposes. Instead, they argue, accidents and exaptation (the use of old features for new purposes) play an important role in the process of evolution.
Some other scientists however argue the implication that many (or most) adaptionists are panglossians is a straw man. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time Michael Shermer relates Frank J. Tipler to Voltaire’s character Pangloss to show how clever people deceive themselves. Shermer explores the psychology of scholars and business men who give up their careers in their pursuit to broadcast their paranormal beliefs. In his last chapter, added to the revised version, Shermer explains that “smart people” can be more susceptible to believing in weird things.
Optimalism, as defined by Nicholas Rescher, holds that this universe exists because it is better than the alternatives. While this philosophy does not exclude the possibility of a deity, it also doesn’t require one, and is compatible with atheism. The positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar uses optimalism to mean willingness to accept failure while remaining confident that success will follow, a positive attitude he contrasts with negative perfectionism. Perfectionism can be defined as a persistent compulsive drive toward unattainable goals and valuation based solely in terms of accomplishment. Perfectionists reject the realities and constraints of human ability. They cannot accept failures, delaying any ambitious and productive behavior in fear of failure again. This neuroticism can even lead to clinical depression and low productivity.
As an alternative to negative perfectionism Ben-Shahar suggests the adoption of optimalism. Optimalism allows for failure in pursuit of a goal, and expects that while the trend of activity will tend towards the positive it is not necessary to always succeed while striving to attain goals. This basis in reality prevents the optimalist from being overwhelmed in the face of failure. Optimalists accept failures and also learn from them, which encourages further pursuit of achievement. Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar believes that Optimalists and Perfectionists show distinct different motives. Optimalists tend to have more intrinsic, inward desires, with a motivation to learn. While perfectionists are highly motivated by a need to consistently prove themselves worthy.
Life Orientation Test (LOT)
Designed by Scheier and Carver (1985), this is one of the more popular tests of optimism and pessimism. There are eight measurements (and an additional four filler items), with four positively (“In uncertain times, I usually expect the best”) and four negatively (“If something can go wrong for me, it will”) worded items. The LOT has been revised twice–once by the original creators (LOT-R) and also by Chang, Maydeu-Olivares, and D’Zurilla as the Extended Life Orientation Test (ELOT). All three are most commonly used because they are based on dispositional optimism, which simply means expecting positive outcomes.
Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ)
This questionnaire created by Peterson et al. (1982) is based on the explanatory style definition of optimism. It lists six positive and negative events (“you have been looking for a job unsuccessfully for some time”), and asks the respondents to record a possible cause for the event and rate the internality, stability, and globality of the event. An optimistic person is one who perceives good things happening to them as internal, stable, and global. There are several modified versions of the ASQ including the Expanded Attributional Style Questionnaire (EASQ), theContent Analysis of Verbatim Explanations (CAVE), and the ASQ designed for testing the optimism for children.
Research has emerged showing the relationships between several psychological constructs and health. Optimism is one of these concepts and has been shown to explain between 5–10% of the variation in the likelihood of developing some health conditions (correlation coefficients between .20 and .30), notably including cardiovascular disease, stroke,depression, and cancer. Furthermore, optimists have been shown to live healthier lifestyles which may influence disease. For example, optimists smoke less, are more physically active, consume more fruit, vegetables and whole-grain bread, and consume more moderate amounts of alcohol.
The relationship between optimism and health has also been studied with regards to physical symptoms, coping strategies and negative affect for those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and fibromyalgia. It has been found that among individuals with these diseases, optimists are not more likely than pessimists to report pain alleviation due to coping strategies, despite differences in psychological well-being between the two groups. A meta-analysis has confirmed the assumption that optimism is related to psychological well-being: “Put simply, optimists emerge from difficult circumstances with less distress than do pessimists.”
Furthermore, the correlation appears to be attributable to coping style: “That is, optimists seem intent on facing problems head-on, taking active and constructive steps to solve their problems; pessimists are more likely to abandon their effort to attain their goals.” It should be noted that research to date has demonstrated that optimists are less likely to have certain diseases or develop certain diseases over time. By comparison, research has not yet been able to demonstrate the ability to change an individual’s level of optimism through psychological intervention, and thereby alter the course of disease or likelihood for development of disease.