Notes from Professor Michael Milona's Hope and Optimism White Paper
Dispositional optimism appears to support goal achievement (motivation). Much of the research here has focused on educational achievement, and one study found that optimistic students are less likely to drop out of college than their pessimistic peers (Solberg Nes, Evans, and Segerstrom 2009).
Furthermore, optimistic law students were found to have higher salaries ten years after graduation (Segerstrom 2007). Assuming that a higher salary is a goal for most law students, this indicates that optimists are better at pursuing what is, at least for many, an important monetary goal (Carver and Scheier 2018, p. 217).
"people are more likely to pursue interactions with optimists than pessimists (Carver, Kus, and Scheier 1994; Brissette, Scheier, and Carver 2002)"
Optimism’s Health Benefits
Researchers are especially interested in the potential benefits of dispositional optimism for physical health. Numerous studies indicate that when it comes to cardiovascular disease, in particular, optimism is especially helpful (Bouchard et al. 2017, pp. 120-121). One major study involved over 95,000 Caucasian and African American women. These women were initially measured for dispositional optimism. Eight years later, the more optimistic women were less likely to suffer from coronary heart disease. The optimists were also less likely to have passed away from any cause (Kim, Park, and Peterson 2011). In general, though, the research on optimism’s benefits for physical ailments other than cardiovascular disease is uncertain. For example, research on the benefits of optimism for HIV and cancer is conflicting (Bouchard et al. 2017, p. 121).
Other research looks at whether optimism predicts healthy behaviors. If so, then this may explain why optimism has some of the health benefits that it does. As it turns out, optimism supports a range of healthy lifestyle habits. For one, optimists tend to eat healthier (i.e., eat more fruits and vegetables) and consume alcohol in moderation (Giltay et al. 2007). Optimists are also less likely to smoke (Steptoe et al. 2010). They likewise tend to seek out information about how to improve their health. For example, one study found that optimists were more likely to know about the risk factors for a heart attack (Radcliffe and Klein 2002). Finally, optimists tend to engage in more physical activity (Giltay et al. 2007). This may be because optimism supports conscientiousness (being well organized and reliable), which Smagula et al. (2016) found to be an independent predictor of physical activity. A recent study on the impact of optimism’s benefits after a diagnosis of advanced cancer found that avoiding alcohol and increased physical activity were associated with higher rates of survival. However, researchers in this study did observe that “in contrast to earlier research, optimism was not found to be significantly related to survival in this cohort of patients” (Krane et al. 2018, p. 3424).
As this last point indicates, even if optimism is helpful, it is no panacea. To add to this point, one recent study explored whether more optimistic older women were more likely to quit smoking. They found this not to be the case (Progovac et al. 2017). Other research explored whether optimism predicted better sleep among students in the week leading up to a major exam. Here, too, optimism was not found to have a positive effect (Pressman et al. 2017, p. 788).
Going forward, researchers advocate exploring the connections between optimism’s social benefits (see above) and its health benefits. While there has been much research linking optimism to social support, and similarly much research linking social support and health outcomes, these research topics have proceeded largely independently. Scheier and Carver observe, “It may be time to integrate these research streams to determine if social variables, such as social integration, network size, and perceived support, might not provide yet an additional set of mechanisms that link optimism to physical well-being” (2018, p. 1090).
Similar to dispositional optimism, researchers have found positive illusions to be beneficial in health contexts. Key research here has focused on HIV (Taylor et al. 1992) and breast cancer (Taylor 1983). Again, similar to dispositional optimism, positive illusions benefit us through the behavior that they support. For example, Taylor et al. (1992) found that seropositive men—those who have tested positive for HIV—were more optimistic than seronegative men that they would not contract AIDS. This is a peculiar result, to say the least, one which strongly indicates irrational thinking on the part of seropositive men. Furthermore, these men exhibited illusions of control (with respect to acquiring AIDS), and superiority (with respect to their immune systems). These optimistic beliefs were “associated with reduced fatalistic vulnerability regarding AIDS, with the use of positive attitudes as a coping technique, with less use of avoidant coping strategies, and with greater practice of health-promoting behaviors” (Taylor and Brown 1994, p. 24; see also Bortolotti 2018, p. 528).
Jefferson and Bortolotti argue that the benefits of positive illusions have implications for doctor-patient relationships. In particular, medical professionals should respect patient decisions, at least up to a point, even when they seem to be irrational (Jefferson and Bortolotti 2018; see also Blumenthal-Barby and Ubel 2018). For as we have seen, positive illusions can lead to health-promoting behavior; and this health- promoting behavior can increase the likelihood that optimistic beliefs will turn out to be true. In this way, it is helpful to remind ourselves of Bortolotti’s (2018) observation, namely, that using the standard label “positive illusions” risks misleading, since those “illusions” are often about an as yet unsettled future.
Optimism’s Emotional Benefits
Perhaps unsurprisingly, dispositionally optimistic people tend to experience greater emotional well- being. Much of the research here has focused on how optimism helps in challenging circumstances. Maintaining optimism through difficult times can ward against the anxiety, sadness, and despair that pessimists often experience. Much of this research is cross-sectional, comparing measures of optimism and measures of distress at a given time. But scholars recognize that these studies are limited. They can tell us that optimistic people tend to have a more positive emotional outlook in stressful situations. Yet we can get a better sense of how, and even whether, optimism interacts with distress with studies that take measurements at different points over time (Bouchard et al. 2017, p. 117; Segerstrom, Carver, and Scheier 2017, pp. 199-200; Carver and Scheier 2018, pp. 219-220).
Longitudinal studies of optimism and emotional well-being have tended to focus on health contexts. For example, in one study, researchers explored the impact of dispositional optimism on recovery from coronary artery bypass surgery. Evaluations took place before surgery, approximately one-week after surgery, and then again six months after. They found that “there was a strong positive association between level of optimism and postsurgical quality of life at 6 months” (Scheier et al. 1989, p. 1024). Another study considered dispositional optimism and rates of postpartum depression symptoms. An important feature of this study is that it controlled for initial levels of dysphoria (discontent). Even when controlling for depressive symptoms in this way, dispositional optimism was still found to buffer against the effects of the stressful event (Carver and Gaines 1987, pp. 456).
One recent study explored whether optimism’s emotional benefits in stressful situations decrease as one ages (Wrosch, Jobin, and Scheier 2017). This was a six-year longitudinal study with adults between the ages of 64 and 90. They discovered that among those in the earlier stages of old age, optimism appeared to serve as a buffer against depressive symptoms. This was not true for the older participants, however. They speculate that this may be due to the nature of the stressors. Younger participants are likely to confront stressors that can be mitigated through action, but those who are older are unfortunately likely to confront stressors that they cannot similarly control.
Optimism’s Motivational Benefits
Dispositional optimism appears to support goal achievement (motivation). Much of the research here has focused on educational achievement, and one study found that optimistic students are less likely to drop out of college than their pessimistic peers (Solberg Nes, Evans, and Segerstrom 2009). Furthermore, optimistic law students were found to have higher salaries ten years after graduation (Segerstrom 2007). Assuming that a higher salary is a goal for most law students, this indicates that optimists are better at pursuing what is, at least for many, an important monetary goal (Carver and Scheier 2018, p. 217).
Dispositional optimism also supports planning, at least in certain respects. The evidence for this emerges from research on optimism and goal conflict. Goals can conflict in two ways. So-called resource conflicts arise when goals make conflicting demands on resources such as time or money. By contrast, inherent conflicts occur when the pursuit of one goal is inconsistent with the pursuit of another. For example, the goal of finding romantic love clashes with the goal of avoiding potential heartbreak and rejection.
As it happens, optimistic people are better at avoiding inherent conflicts. Why might this be? One study found that optimistic students were better able to identify and pursue important goals, while their pessimistic peers found themselves pursuing important and unimportant goals in equal measure (Segerstrom and Solberg Nes 2006; Bouchard et al. 2017, p. 115). That said, optimistic people do appear to face resource conflicts at a higher rate. Yet despite often facing resource conflicts, optimistic people tend to be happier. This indicates that resource conflicts may be less distressing than inherent conflicts (Bouchard et al. 2017, pp. 114-115; see below on the emotional benefits of optimism).
One might wonder, though, what happens when dispositional optimists recognize, or should recognize, that their goal is unachievable. In this case, it turns out that optimists and pessimists report finding it equally difficult to give up unachievable projects. However, optimists have the upper hand insofar as they are better at finding new goals to replace old ones. In this way, the greater flexibility of optimism helps them to plan for the future in ways that enhance their well-being. For example, one study found that optimistic patients who were forced to adjust their life due to illness were much happier one year later than their pessimistic peers (Rasmussen et al. 2006).
Optimism and Coping
Researchers are especially interested in why dispositional optimists have so many advantages. We have already touched on some of the potential reasons. Optimism predicts healthier eating, and healthier eating has a number of physical health benefits (Giltay et al. 2007). This section highlights the healthy ways in which optimists tend to cope with stressful situations. Optimists’ coping methods are often held up as the means by which optimism has so many benefits (Segerstrom, Carver, and Scheier 2017, pp. 201-202; Bouchard et al. 2017, pp. 118-120; Carver and Scheier 2018, pp. 221-222).
Coping is typically understood by highlighting two principal distinctions. First, there is the distinction between problem-focused coping and emotion-focused comping. The former aims to address the source of stress, whereas the latter aims to regulate one’s emotional responses (Lazarus and Folkman 1984). A second distinction is between engagement coping and avoidance coping. Engagement coping means confronting the stressor itself or the emotions caused by that stressor. By contrast, avoidance or disengagement is an attempt to turn one’s attention elsewhere (Skinner et al. 2002).
It turns out that optimists tend to engage in productive coping strategies that are sensitive to their situations. In general, optimists tend to deal with stressful situations and difficult emotions (engagement coping) rather than to avoid them (disengagement coping). Whether an optimist emphasizes problem- focused engagement coping or emotion-focused engagement coping tends to depend on whether the situation is perceived as controllable. If the stressor is something controllable, then the optimist is likely to address it head on. For example, in the previously mentioned study of patients undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery, it was found that optimistic patients tended to plan what they would need to do to increase their chances of a healthy recovery (Scheier et al. 1989). If optimists experience a traumatic event that they can do nothing about, however, then they are likely to emphasize soothing their emotions.
Carver and Scheier (2018, pp. 222-223) emphasize that the ways in which optimists cope with stress makes them much likelier to accept that something unfortunate has happened rather than to deny that it has. This can help us to understand why optimists are more effective at restructuring their plans in the face of life’s inevitable challenges. And the way in which optimists confront, rather than avoid, problems can help us to understand why they are more often successful in their coping strategies and thus tend to have greater physical and emotional well-being.
Turn now to positive illusions. Might they help us to cope in similar ways? There is evidence that such beliefs can lead to problem-focused and engagement coping (see Taylor and Brown 1994 and Bortolotti 2018 discussed above). But for this to happen, the biases need to include illusions of control. An irrational belief about one’s degree of control over the achievement of some goal makes it more likely that one will persevere through challenges (Bortolotti 2018, p. 528). But positive illusions can also be harmful, too, as we shall see below. Once we see these dangers, we will be in a better position to ask whether and how positive illusions should be encouraged (see below on cultivating optimism).
This section considers where optimism comes from and how it might be cultivated. As in previous sections, I focus first on dispositional optimism, moving afterwards to positive illusions.
Cultivating Dispositional Optimism
Given the benefits of dispositional optimism, one may wonder what its origins are. Is optimism simply a function of our genetic make-up, or can we cultivate it?
Well, to begin, there is some evidence that optimism is heritable.
But it appears to be less heritable than many other personality traits (Segerstrom, Carver, and Scheier 2017, p. 198).
Existing research suggests that 25% to 35% of one’s degree of optimism is heritable (Plomin et al. 1992; see also Scheier and Carver 2018, p. 1090).
There is also evidence that optimism changes throughout adulthood, suggesting the possibility of finding ways to enhance it. For example, Scheier and Carver (2018, p. 1084) indicate that optimism tends to increase with age. Yet optimism can, at least to an extent, be damaged by traumatic events. Krane et al. (2018) found this with respect to people who had been diagnosed with an advanced stage of pancreatic cancer (but compare Bredal and Ekeberg 2016).
Unfortunately, however, even if optimism is only partially heritable, the traits that ordinarily lead to greater optimism may themselves be largely out of our control (cf. Bennett 2011, p. 307 on optimism and extroversion).
One study, for instance, found that those who are perceived as physically attractive are more optimistic (Urbatsch 2018). Physical attractiveness here is determined by interviewer ratings of interviewees. One (partial) explanation for this attractiveness-optimism link might be that physical beauty tends to lead to economic success and upward mobility, and as one’s socio-economic status increases, one’s optimism also tends to increase (Urbatsch 2018, pp. 25-26; see also Heinonen et al. 2006).
Additionally, the predictive power of attractiveness decreases once education is controlled for. Since attractive people “are often favored by teachers,” educational achievement may likewise mediate the attractiveness-optimism link. Because physical attractiveness seems to support optimism through socio-economic standing and education, this suggests that socio-economic and educational reforms may better support optimism.
Jason Fletcher (2019) explores how neighborhoods and schools influence optimism. In carrying out his research, Fletcher did not rely on the dispositional optimism construct and accompanying Life Orientation Test (LOT). But the survey data that he used, which were part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, arguably probed the same trait. Indeed, the survey items were a subset of those on the LOT-R. For instance, participants in the National Longitudinal Study were asked how much they agreed with statements such as “I’m always optimistic about my future” and “Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad.” Fletcher was particularly interested in the effects of neighborhoods and schools on optimism. He found, perhaps surprisingly, that neighborhoods and schools only explained about 3% of the variation between respondents in terms of hope and optimism.
In interpreting these results, it’s important to note that this research focuses on neighborhood-level rather than individual-level factors. For instance, while an individual transitioning out of poverty appears to lead to greater optimism, an intervention at the level of a neighborhood may have a much smaller effect on its own. As Fletcher observes, cleanly identifying the role of neighborhoods (distinct from individuals) is notoriously difficult (see also Diez Roux and Mair 2010). It should likewise be emphasized that Fletcher was only able to consider variations between existing neighborhoods that may explain variations in optimism. As he points out, this leaves open the possibility that entirely novel changes to neighborhoods and schools may lead to more dramatic improvements in optimism.
There is some evidence that joining a religious community supports optimism. But caution is needed here. Researchers in this area have focused on optimism as attributional style (Sethi and Seligman 1993). Recall that, according to the attributional style approach to optimism, those who view the causes of their failures as fixed are likely to have a negative outlook on the future. By contrast, viewing the causes of failure as changeable can lead to a more positive outlook.
Questionnaires revealed not only that religious people were more (attributionally) optimistic than those from more liberal groups, but also that people from fundamentalist groups were more optimistic than those from moderate ones. Insofar as being part of a religious community supports attributional style optimism, it is plausible that it supports dispositional optimism, too, given the close relationship between these two constructs (see Section 2).
Researchers have found that dispositional optimism can be boosted, at least temporarily, through mental exercises and habit formation (see Carver and Scheier 2014, p. 297).
For example, optimism can be boosted by spending five minutes each day imagining one’s ideal self (Meevissen, Peters, and Alberts 2011).
Additionally, researchers focusing on attributional style have found that forming a habit of explaining the causes of good/bad outcomes in optimistic ways can support being optimistic (Seligman 1991).
Rather than explain a negative outcome as due to unchangeable features of oneself, one can cultivate optimism by forming the habit of looking for explanations due to changeable features of one’s environment.
Similarly, Scheier and Carver (2018, p. 1091) advocate training oneself to deploy healthy coping strategies (see above). The thought is that acting in the way that optimists act, and reaping the corresponding benefits, may lead one to become more optimistic.
We know much less about how to support optimism than we do about its benefits.
Optimism researchers emphasize that this is among the most important topics for future research (Carver and Scheier 2014, p. 297; Bouchard et al. 2017, p. 124; Scheier and Carver 2018, p. 1091).
Cultivating Positive Illusions
Some theorists believe that we are hardwired by evolution to form positive illusions. One popular explanation for this is error management theory.
But Anneli Jefferson (2017) argues that this common explanation of the emergence of positive illusions fails. Her criticisms reveal the important ways in which positive illusions do, in fact, emerge. As it turns out, we do have some control over the emergence of positive illusions. But whether we should cultivate them (or at least not interfere with existing beneficial illusions) is a delicate ethical question, since doing so would amount to supporting irrationality.
To begin, an error management explanation says that “in situations of uncertainty, organisms have evolved to favor the least costly error” (Jefferson 2017, p. 1159). For example, this theory explains our tendency to “over-perceive” snakes in terms of the comparative costs. If we perceive a snake when a snake is not actually present, the cost of error is low. You’re likely just to be momentarily startled. By contrast, there is greater risk in failing to perceive a snake when one is present. According to Haselton and Nettle (2006), matters are analogous for positive illusions. The costs of forming an optimistically biased belief and being wrong are low compared to the potential benefits. As Jefferson outlines, for those drawn to an error management explanation of positive illusions, “the role that lack of realism plays is a motivational one, in that it makes it easier for us to take calculated risks because we do not perceive them as quite so risky” (2017, pp. 1162-1163).
Yet Jefferson argues against the error management explanation for the evolutionary roots of positive illusions. One major reason for this is that the factors regulating the biases that generate positive illusions have nothing to do with comparative costs and benefits. I will explain each of these in turn (see Jefferson 2017, pp. 1170-1171; Harris, Griffin, and Murray 2008).
First, unrealistic optimism often emerges when a person recognizes that they fail to fit a relevant stereotype. For example, the stereotype of a person who suffers a heart attack is someone who is stressed out and/or eats unhealthily. Now take a person who eats healthily and has a low-stress job. Since this person doesn’t fit the stereotype for a person who has a heart attack, they might believe that they are less likely to have a heart attack than they in fact are. Second, those who realize that they will need to justify their predictions to others are likely to shift to more realistic beliefs. The anticipation of debate and discussion pushes people toward realism. Third, how common an event is affects how biased people tend to be. For example, if a negative event occurs only rarely, people are likely to be optimistic that it won’t happen to them. Given that these and other factors influence our optimistic bias, it is not clear whether we need to appeal to error management theory’s evolutionary explanation of positive illusions. Furthermore, we have already seen in our discussion of the dangers of positive illusions that people are often biased when the costs of error are comparatively high. In other cases, positive illusions lead to complacency, making success less likely. In general, while positive illusions might have evolutionary origins, this question remains outstanding; it doesn’t appear to be supported by error management theory.
Whether or not we have evolved tendencies toward positive illusions, these tendencies are flexible to some extent. Thus the question arises, Should we nurture any of our tendencies toward positive illusions? The answer to this question has concrete implications, notably with respect to therapy and doctor-patient relationships (see also Section 3).
Bortolotti identifies two popular answers, ultimately rejecting both before offering her own answer (Bortolotti 2018, pp. 525-526). First, we have the traditional view. Advocates of the traditional view maintain that well-being is best supported by rational and accurate beliefs. Bortolotti observes that support for this view can be found in scholars who see the roots of depression in irrational negative thought patterns (e.g., Beck 1967). Consider the following from Jourard and Landsman (1980, p. 75):
The ability to perceive reality as it “really” is is fundamental to effective functioning. It is considered one of the two preconditions to the development of the healthy personality. (quoted in Bortolotti 2018, p. 529)
By contrast, the trade-off view recognizes that well-being doesn’t always harmonize with rationality and truth. There are some cases in which inaccuracy is preferable. In particular, a fully realistic view of our talents often results in negative feelings. Proponents of this view advocate “self-enhancing distortions” (Lewinsohn et al. 1980; see also Taylor and Brown 1988). However, the trade-off view recommends only minor distortions. For if our bias is too extreme, then we may not adequately prepare for setbacks and failures (Sweeny, Carroll, and Shepperd 2006). Here is a representative illustration from Taylor (1989, p. 228):
Increasingly, we must view the psychologically healthy person not as someone who sees things as they are but as someone who sees things as he or she would like them to be. Effective functioning in everyday life appears to depend upon interrelated positive illusions, systematic small distortions of reality that make things appear better than they are. (quoted in Bortolotti 2018, p. 529)
Bortolotti rejects both these answers (2018, pp. 525-526). The traditional view is undermined by the various benefits of positive illusions that we have already noted. Moreover, it doesn’t appear to be true that depression is (typically) best explained by a lack of realism (Lewinsohn et al. 1980). That said, the trade-off view suffers from problems of its own. The first is that it misses the ways in which some kinds of self-enhancing positive illusions are harmful, even if the bias is small. Second, it just isn’t true that positive illusions are only ever conducive to well-being if the distortions are small. Sometimes more extreme idealizations are best. This is often the case in relationships, for example.
Bortolotti argues that interventions should aim at agency enhancing optimism. Sometimes we can overcome a problem, or avoid a potential one, through perseverance and strategic thinking. As indicated above, this is especially true in health and relationships contexts. In confronting challenges in these domains (among others, potentially), we should aim to cultivate “illusions of control.” A tendency to think that we are in control creates patterns of thought of the form, “I can do this,” which tends to lead to constructive behavior. This bias toward a sense of control can be combined with additional irrational beliefs to the effect that one is superior and that things will turn out well. But it is crucial to recognize that bias that functions only to enhance one’s mood and self-esteem, rather than one’s agency, is likely to undermine well-being in the long run.
Dispositional optimism is typically measured with the Life Orientation Test (LOT) and the Life Orientation Test–Revised (LOT-R). The LOT asks participants the extent to which they agree with statements such as “I’m always optimistic about my future” and “If something can go wrong for me, it will.” Possible answers include the following: strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, or strongly disagree (Scheier and Carver 1985). The LOT-R is similar but includes fewer questions (Scheier, Carver, and Bridges 1994).