OECD Finds Optimism is the Key to Teenage Wellbeing

"Cultivate Students' Optimism to Improve Their Well-being and Health Outcomes."
by Victor Perton

"Cultivate Students' Optimism to Improve Their Well-being and Health Outcomes."

That's the OECD's important policy advice in its research report "Social and Emotional Skills for Better Lives: Findings from the OECD Survey on Social and Emotional Skills 2023", underscores optimism's crucial role in enhancing students' well-being and health. 

The organisation concludes, "Students who are more optimistic engage in healthier behaviours; are more satisfied with their lives, relationships, and body image; have less test and class anxiety; and report greater psychological well-being. By building optimism, education systems might help close the well-being gap that exists between boys and girls and advantaged and disadvantaged students, where girls report poorer levels of all health and well-being outcomes and disadvantaged students of all except test and class anxiety. SSES finds that higher optimism is more strongly associated with higher life satisfaction and relationship satisfaction among disadvantaged students and girls, and with better body image for girls, suggesting these students could particularly benefit from efforts to cultivate this skill."

The Benefits of Cultivating Optimism

Cultivating optimism among students has multifaceted benefits that extend beyond academic achievement. Research consistently shows that optimistic students are likelier to engage in healthy behaviours such as regular physical activity, balanced nutrition, and adequate sleep. These behaviours contribute significantly to physical health and prevent chronic conditions later in life. Furthermore, optimism is linked to better stress management and lower levels of depression and anxiety, promoting mental health resilience.

Optimistic students tend to have a more positive outlook on their future, which motivates them to set and pursue ambitious goals. This goal-oriented mindset is crucial for academic success and future career achievements. Moreover, optimistic students often exhibit better social skills, enabling them to build and maintain supportive relationships with peers, teachers, and family members. These solid social networks provide emotional support and contribute to overall life satisfaction.

The Schools Response

I asked the highly regarded Principal, Dr Toni Meath, for her response to the OECD report.  

Toni told me, "Our aim as educators is to create learning environments that are student-centered and encourage independence rather than dependence, optimism rather than pessimism. Knowing a lot well is not enough. The rise of generative AI will be an area that we will need to navigate through carefully and with an ethical lens. The geopolitical landscape across the planet is shifting rapidly, and our graduates need to have skills to traverse this. Concerns of environmental sustainability and climate change will put forward wicked problems our graduates will need to address. As a partnership between home and school we need to develop within our young people resiliency, positivity, and the ability to act and problem solve when they don’t know what to do. We need to have education for the unknown. An optimistic outlook is essential for this.”

(Read Schools are Natural Centres of Optimism: Toni Meath)

Addressing the Well-being Gap

The OECD report highlights a significant well-being gap between different student demographics. Girls, for instance, generally report poorer levels of health and well-being outcomes compared to boys. Disadvantaged students face more significant challenges in achieving life satisfaction and positive body image. Education systems can specifically target these vulnerable groups by cultivating optimism and providing them with the psychological tools necessary to overcome adversities and improve their well-being.

Effective Ways to Train Optimism

The OECD says optimism training can include positive self-talk, gratitude exercises, and setting realistic yet challenging goals. 

Over the last ten years with The Centre for Optimism, I have researched effective ways of training people to be more optimistic.  I have delivered programs to adults and teenagers alike.

For teenagers, we adults should adopt the sage advice of the Dalai Lama who told me we adults need to model optimism.  The Dalai Lama said, "A more optimistic attitude is key to the care of teenagers and children through this pandemic.  A pessimistic attitude is very bad.  Helping children to stay hopeful and still optimistic despite the difficulties is very important."

Optimists' habits start with something as simple as smiling and saying hello to the people they pass. 

Perhaps change your greeting and ask people about the best thing in their day or what has brought them joy.

Activities like the "My Best Self" exercise and identifying one's "Optimism Superpower" can help reinforce positive thinking.

Do the My Best Possible Self Exercise

Schools can incorporate these practices into their practices through dedicated well-being programs, optimism workshops, and positive psychology counselling services. 

Teachers and school leaders can also model optimistic behaviours and attitudes, creating an environment that fosters positivity and resilience. By doing so, schools not only enhance the immediate well-being of their students but also equip them with lifelong skills that contribute to sustained health and happiness​.

Practical Implementation in Schools

Implementing strategies to cultivate optimism in schools involves integrating social-emotional learning (SEL) into the educational framework. SEL programs designed to enhance students' emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and interpersonal skills have significantly boosted optimism and overall mental health. Activities such as mindfulness meditation, peer mentoring, and community service projects can also promote a positive school climate and a sense of belonging among students.

Teacher training is essential in this endeavour. Educators must be equipped with the knowledge and skills to identify signs of pessimism and mental distress in their students and to intervene appropriately. Professional development programs focusing on SEL can empower teachers to create supportive classroom environments and to use positive reinforcement to encourage optimistic thinking. Additionally, involving parents and caregivers in these efforts ensures that the principles of optimism are reinforced at home, providing a consistent and supportive framework for students.


The OECD's findings on the benefits of optimism underscore the need for educational systems to prioritise cultivating this vital skill. 

By fostering an optimistic outlook in students, schools can enhance their well-being, reduce health disparities, and equip them with the resilience to navigate life's challenges. 

As educators, parents, and policymakers work together to implement these strategies, they can create a brighter, healthier future for all students.

By embedding optimism into the fabric of education and home life, we improve individual outcomes and contribute to a more positive and resilient society. 

How can your school, community and household begin to integrate practices that promote optimism and well-being among students?

Worth Doing: Our 5-Minute Survey on "What makes you Optimistic?"

Some Related Thoughts

In "Whatever Happened to the Optimism of Youth", Lee Hamilton, a distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, wrote, "Youth should be a time of optimism. Faith in progress, the idea that future generations will enjoy a life that we can only imagine, is the American creed. We depend on young people to embody that faith and carry it forward."

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