Optimism is linked to resilience and better mental health. It also increases the likelihood of effective problem-solving which is very useful when we find ourselves tested by life.
Optimism is often described as a natural tendency to expect the best of life and to view the challenges that are part of the journey positively. Resilient people have a sense of a positive future, believing that it is never too late to turn a corner and to embrace a better quality of life. They seem to be blessed with a sense of optimism that is sustainable even through the darkest times. These people have a tendency to find positive meaning in experiences, and a belief that not only can they survive through tough times but potentially thrive through adversity. They never seem to lose their sense of self-initiative and are blessed with a deep awareness of their own inner resources. Optimism is linked to resilience and better mental health. It also increases the likelihood of effective problem-solving which is very useful when we find ourselves tested by life. Can we learn to be more optimistic? Should we try to be more optimistic? Are there any pitfalls to optimism?
Research has confirmed numerous benefits associated with optimistic people. They tend to have better physical health, more success at school, work and sport, and enjoy more satisfying relationships. Depression and anxiety seem to be repelled by optimists and studies have also shown that they live longer than pessimists. But does optimism improve our lives, or is it easy to be optimistic when we are blessed with relatively easy lives? In other words, do people become optimistic or pessimistic depending on what they have experienced in their lives?
We know that optimism promotes a more positive mood and that must be a factor in warding off depression and anxiety. We also know that optimism encourages people to apply greater persistence in the face of life’s obstacles. Maybe this is the reason why they are more successful than pessimists. They do not surrender easily. Qualitative studies show that optimists actually look after their health better than pessimists. Surely this is a factor in them living longer lives They seek out information about potential health risks and change their behaviour accordingly in order to avoid those risks. These are all good things. Indeed we could learn a lot from optimists.
However, optimism is not all good! In most circumstances, optimism is beneficial but it needs to be anchored in reality. Blind optimism brought our nation into enormous economic problems. The Celtic Tiger is slumped over on its side. Today we are experiencing a huge hangover. We have been humbled and humiliated. But maybe we will ask the better questions now! When people are excessively optimistic they may not have realistic expectations about the possibility of bad things happening, and can potentially be caught unprepared when they do. Optimism is not always the best approach.
Martin Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have shown that it is possible to successfully reduce the incidence of depression and anxiety in children. His intervention showed how teaching optimism to children and helping them to examine and change the way they think about the things made a huge difference. Children can be taught optimism explicitly, like any other skill. Maybe Irish schools need to look into this more closely.
It’s a sad reality but depression is increasing among young people. In fact it is becoming a common phenomenon. The growing number of suicides among teenagers in recent months highlights the issue even more. But what we don’t need is a reactionary approach. That’s where we are making a crucial mistake. We need to sow the seeds of mental wellness. We need to empower children to cope with the challenges of life. Teaching optimism would be one aspect of a potential lifesaving programme that could be implemented in our schools. Wouldn’t I love to be involved in something like this. Of course I would but there are no salaries for wellness and happiness. We really need to move away from the deficits, disadvantages and disorders approach and design scientically validated positive interventions for our children. We need a new conversation. A new discussion about what our education system should be about.
(c) Shane Martin
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We need to sow the seeds of mental wellness. We need to empower children to cope with the challenges of life. Teaching optimism would be one aspect of a potential lifesaving programme that could be implemented in our schools.