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The Power of Optimism

Updated: Jun 6

For many years we believed that one's disposition – either optimistic or pessimistic – was a hardwired element of personality. However, new research says otherwise.

Optimism is a hopeful, positive outlook on the future, yourself, and the world around you. By definition, optimism helps you see, feel and think positive thoughts. It is a key part of resilience, the inner strength that helps you get through tough times. This is largely because optimistic thoughts reduce stress and promote the production of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.

A wealth of studies show the positive impact of optimism on cognition and productivity to happiness and overall well-being - even professional success. 

In one study, participants were more optimistic and reported an increase in overall well-being after keeping a gratitude journal for ten weeks. Another study reported a surge in happiness scores after participants wrote a thank you letter to someone who had positively impacted their lives. Numerous workplace studies show gains in productivity, job satisfaction, and engagement by employees who were thanked for their contributions.

Dr. Martin Seligman, the Father of Gratitude and Optimism, has conducted extensive research in the area of gratitude and optimism. His book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, was originally published 20 years ago. In it, he defines optimism and pessimism and the decades of research that show how each influences our mental models of the world.

In one landmark study, Seligman explored the neuroscience of gratitude as a potential treatment for mental illness. He wanted to find out which types of gratitude practices would not only make people happier but which had the most long-lasting effects. He divided 577 participants into four different groups. Each group was given a specific task to complete for one week. They were then tested immediately after the task, and then again one week, one month, three months, and six months after the task to determine how long the effects of that week-long exercise would last. 

Control group: Participants were asked to write about their early memories every night for one week. 

Gratitude visit group: Participants were given one week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude in person to someone who had been exceptionally kind to them but had never been properly thanked. 

Three good things group: Participants were asked to write down three good things about each day for one week. They were also told to write down what they thought caused those good things to happen. 

You at your best group: Participants were asked to write about a time when they were at their best and then to reflect on the personal strengths that experience exemplified. They were also told to reflect upon those experiences by reading the journal entry once each day for a week. 

It may not surprise you to learn that Seligman found an increase in happiness and a decrease in depression after these reflection exercises. But, the most significant difference between the groups was the length of time that the positive changes lasted. 

Participants in the control group and the you at your best group showed an immediate boost in happiness and a reduction in depression immediately following the exercise. However, the effects significantly diminished after one month and were no longer apparent after three months. 

Participants in the gratitude visit group showed the most substantial positive changes in the whole study. This boost in happiness and decrease in depressive symptoms were maintained at follow-up assessments one week and one month later. But, beyond the one-month mark, the effects began to diminish. 

Tell me three good things

The biggest surprise was the three good things group. They demonstrated the greatest long-lasting gains. They began to show beneficial effects one month following the posttest, they were happier and less depressed than they had been at baseline, and continued to demonstrate positive effects at the 3- and 6-month assessments. 

The exact relationship between optimism and good health remains unclear. Seligman maintains that it could be that optimists are more health conscious because they believe in the potential positive outcomes. Or, that because they are more positive, they are more likable and, therefore, they have stronger social networks and relationships. Another possibility is that optimistic people may have had less trauma.

The research is clear about how optimism impacts depression, mental illness, stress, anxiety, physical health and even professional success.

Scientists have linked increased levels of stress to a host of ailments – everything from headaches to immune system disorders to cardiovascular disease. While none of us are immune from stress, optimists manage it better and revert to a state of calm more quickly after a stressful event. Learned optimism techniques have also been shown to decrease anxiety issues and depression with correlating physical benefits, as well.

Studies have shown that optimism and positivity significantly impact our perceptions of others in the workplace. Optimistic people smile and laugh more, and this makes them appear more confident, trustworthy, and collaborative. They also have more energy and motivation to be productive. People who are highly optimistic demonstrate higher energy and motivation to be productive. For all of these reasons, optimists are more likely to get promoted and salary increases than their pessimistic peers.

Seligman contends that everyone is capable of nurturing optimism. He developed a 48-question test (which you can take here) to find out just how much work you have to do.

So, on those gloomy days when your happiness meter isn't registering, the best way to change your outlook may be to express your gratitude to someone else. Walk down the hall to thank a colleague for being on your team. Pick up the phone for the sole purpose of saying, "you're special to me." Grab a notepad and write a heartfelt expression of thanks. If you want that happiness to last, make it part of your routine to look for three good things every single day. 

That old saying, “What we find depends upon what we look for” is so true! If you begin each day with the intention of looking for three good things, you’ll likely find more than three. And on the really tough days, those good things are going to mean even more.


What are your three good things today?


Fast Company contributor Shawn Casemore changed his mindset from pessimism to optimism with a few shifts. Here’s what worked for him:

  1. Flip concerns about risks to a positive question. “What’s the worst that can happen?” becomes, “What are the best possible outcomes?”

  2. Share your optimistic view with others. “When we repeat things out loud, we override the little green negative person who is on our shoulder whispering pessimistic views in our ear,” he says.

  3. Surround yourself with optimistic people and news. He also suggests challenging negative comments and viewpoints when you encounter them.  


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