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Optimism and Well-Being

By Karen Reivich

Dictionary definitions of optimism encompass two related concepts. The first of these is a hopeful disposition or a conviction that good will ultimately prevail. The second, broader conception of optimism refers to the belief, or the inclination to believe, that the world is the best of all possible worlds. In psychological research, optimism has referred to hopeful expectations in a given situation (Scheier & Carver, 1988) and, recently, to general expectancies that are positive (Scheier & Carver, 1993). This more generalized expectancy, or “dispositional optimism,” is related to a variety of indices of psychological and physical health. Individuals who score high on measures of dispositional optimism report fewer depressive symptoms, greater use of effective coping strategies, and fewer physical symptoms than do pessimists (for reviews see Scheier & Carver, 1992, 1993).

Perhaps consistent with the second, broader definition of optimism, the terms optimism and pessimism have recently been applied to the ways in which people routinely think about causes of events in their lives (explanatory style; Seligman, 1991). People are optimistic when they attribute problems in their lives to temporary, specific, and external (as opposed to permanent, pervasive, and internal) causes. An optimistic explanatory style is associated with higher levels of motivation, achievement, and physical well-being and lower levels of depressive symptoms (for a recent review see Buchanan & Seligman, 1995).

This article will focus on the explanatory style construct of optimism, present some of the major research findings from this literature, and summarize strategies for cultivating optimism in youth.

Explanatory Style Theories

The reformulated learned helplessness theory. When events, particularly negative events, occur in our lives, we search for an explanation. According to the reformulated learned helplessness theory (RLHT; Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978), the manner in which we routinely explain events in our lives can drain our motivation, reduce our persistence, and render us vulnerable to depression. Alternatively, our explanatory style can inspire us to problem-solve and make us resilient in the face of adversity. The RLHT describes three dimensions on which explanations can vary: internal versus external, stable versus unstable, and global versus specific. Pessimistic explanations for negative events are those that are more internal, stable, and global. That is, adversity is attributed to characteristics of one’s self, factors that are likely to endure through time, and circumstances that affect many domains of our lives. Optimistic explanations show the reverse pattern. Negative events are ascribed to environmental or situational factors that are temporary and impact upon few domains of one’s life. In explaining a conflict in an intimate relationship, for example, a pessimist might tell herself, “I’m not loveable” (internal, stable, and global), whereas an optimist may speculate, “We’ve both been under a great deal of stress at work lately” (external, unstable, and specific). When explaining positive events, pessimistic and optimistic patterns reverse. Pessimistic explanations for positive events are external, unstable, and specific. That is, the source of success and good fortune is seen as fleeting, influencing few areas of life, and brought on by other people or circumstances. In contrast, optimistic explanations are internal, stable, and global.

The RLHT predicts that pessimistic and optimistic explanations will lead to different expectations about the future. Individuals who attribute negative events to stable and global causes will expect outcomes to be uncontrollable in the future. These individuals will be vulnerable to helplessness in the face of adversity. In contrast, individuals who attribute negative events to unstable or specific causes will expect to exert control in the future and hence will be more resilient. The RLHT proposes that the stability of the cause is related to the duration of helplessness symptoms, the pervasiveness (globality) of the cause is related to the generalization of helplessness across multiple situations, and the internality of the cause is related to the occurrence of selfesteem deficits in depression.

The hopelessness theory of depression. Abramson, Alloy, and Metalsky (1989) argued that the stable and global dimensions of explanatory style have a stronger impact on motivation and depression than does the internal dimension. Thus, blaming the conflict described above on the belief that “love never endures” (an external, stable, and global attribution) will also lead to helplessness. According to the hopelessness theory (HT), a revision of the RLHT, three types of interpretations can put one at risk for depression following a negative event. First, the event may be attributed to stable and global causes. Second, negative or catastrophic consequences of the event may be inferred. Third, negative characteristics about the self may be inferred. When these interpretations are made frequently, they lead to negative expectations about the occurrence of highly valued outcomes (a negative outcome expectancy) and to negative expectations about one’s ability to change the likelihood of these outcomes (a helplessness expectancy). According to the HT, these negative expectations are the proximal cause of a subtype of depression characterized by retarded initiation of voluntary response, sad affect, lack of energy, apathy, psychomotor retardation, sleep disturbance, difficulty in concentration, negative thinking, and suicidal ideation.

Research on Explanatory Style

Several hundred studies have been published which investigate the relationship between explanatory style and various aspects of psychological and physical health. We will present some of the major findings from this literature (for a recent review of research on explanatory style, see Buchanan and Seligman, 1995).

Explanatory style and depression. Researchers have evaluated two hypotheses regarding the link between explanatory style and depression. The weak hypothesis, that a pessimistic explanatory style is associated with depressive symptoms, is supported by many studies of adults (for a review, see Robins & Hayes, 1995) and children (for reviews, see Gladstone & Kaslow, 1995; Joiner & Wagner, 1995). The stronger hypothesis, that a pessimistic explanatory style is a risk factor for depressive symptoms, has met with conflicting findings. Several studies have investigated the ability of explanatory style to predict changes in depressive symptoms over time. In some of these studies, a pessimistic explanatory style predicts depressive symptoms, with pessimistic explanatory style predicting increases in symptoms over time (e.g., Golin, Sweeney, & Schaeffer, 1981; Seligman et al., 1984). In other investigations, however, explanatory style does not significantly predict changes in symptoms (e.g., Bennet & Bates, 1995; Hammen, Adrian, & Hiroto, 1988; Tiggemann, Winefield, Winefield, & Goldney, 1991).

In adults, recovery from depression during cognitive therapy is linked to improvement in explanatory style (Seligman et al., 1988). In addition, a pessimistic explanatory style predicts relapse following the termination of therapy (DeRubeis & Hollon, 1995; Ilardi, Craighead, & Evans, 1997). Programs that improve explanatory style help to prevent depressive symptoms in adults and children (Brunwasser, Gillham, & Kim, 2009; Gillham, Reivich, Jaycox, & Seligman, 1995; Jaycox, Reivich, Gillham, Seligman, 1994; Seligman, Schulman, DeRubeis, & Hollon, 1999).

Explanatory style, achievement, and productivity. Optimistic explanations for negative events are linked to higher academic achievement in college students and increased job productivity (for a review, see Schulman, 1995). Students who explain events in an optimistic manner are more likely than pessimists to exceed the level of academic performance predicted by their high school class rank, SAT scores, and achievement test scores (Schulman, 1995). In children, attributions of academic failure to stable and global factors, such as lack of ability, is associated with decreased persistence and more negative expectations for future success (e.g., Dweck, 1975).

Explanatory style and physical health. Explanatory style also appears to be linked to physical health (for a review, see Peterson & Bossio, 1991). Optimistic college students report fewer physical illnesses, make fewer doctor visits, and feel more able to prevent health problems than their pessimistic peers (Peterson, 1988; Peterson & De Avila, 1995). Explanatory style in young adulthood has been found to predict physical health in middle age (Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillant, 1988). Recently, Buchanan (1995) found that explanatory style predicted long-term survival among men who had suffered one heart attack.

Improving explanatory style may enhance physical well-being. Buchanan, Gardenswartz, and Seligman (1999) tracked visits to a student health center among university students who participated in a program designed to improve explanatory style. Compared to controls, these students made more preventive healthcare visits and fewer illness-related visits.

Explanatory style in other life arenas. An optimistic explanatory style has also been linked to many other outcomes. For example, studies suggest that explanatory style is linked to athletic performance (Rettew & Reivich, 1995; Seligman, Nolen-Hoeksema, Thornton, & Thornton, 1990). For instance, basketball teams that gave more optimistic explanations for losses were more likely than those with pessimistic explanatory styles to come back from a loss by winning the next game (Rettew & Reivich, 1995). Seligman and colleagues studied swimmers’ responses to poor times. In this study, members of a university varsity swim team were given false feedback after they performed their best event. Each swimmer was given a time for the event that was slightly longer than his/her actual time. Although the actual discrepancies were small, they were large enough to make the difference between good and bad times. An optimistic explanatory style was associated with greater resilience and predicted greater performance following this negative feedback (Seligman et al., 1990).

Explanatory style is also linked to marital satisfaction. Couples who attribute marital events to factors that are external to their spouse, unstable, and specific report higher levels of marital satisfaction than those with the reverse explanatory style. An optimistic explanatory style for marital events also appears to predict future marital satisfaction (e.g., Fincham & Bradbury, 1993).


Over the past decade, there has been an increasing focus on the pathway between optimism and well-being. Three questions that are receiving increasing attention are (a) How do life events interact with optimism to affect adjustment, (b) Why does optimism lead to greater well-being, and (c) Does optimism interact in important ways with other variables?

Diathesis–stress models. The RLHT and HT are diathesis–stress models of depression. According to these models, individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style (the diathesis) are more likely than those with an optimistic style to become depressed when they experience negative life events (stress). Most studies of explanatory style have examined the link between pessimistic explanatory style and depressive symptoms, without considering the role of negative life events. Several researchers argue that these studies are, therefore, inadequate tests of the RLHT and HT (Abramson et al., 1989; Metalsky, Halberstadt, & Abramson, 1987; Robins & Hayes, 1995).

A few studies explicitly test the diathesis–stress component of explanatory style theories. For example, Metalsky and colleagues (1987) studied depressive affect in students following receipt of a poor exam grade. These researchers found that most students who received poor grades reported immediate depressed mood, but only those students with a hopeless (stable and global) explanatory style for negative events continued to report depressed mood several days later. Thus, enduring depressed mood was predicted by the interaction of a pessimistic explanatory style with the experience of a negative life event. In general, studies of the diathesis–stress model have produced mixed results. Some report a significant interaction between negative life events and explanatory style (Hilsman & Garber, 1995; Houston, 1995), while others find this interaction is not significant (Follette & Jacobson, 1987; Hammen et al., 1988; Tiggemann et al., 1991).

Coping. Although optimism is related to a variety of psychological, behavioral, and physical outcomes, we know relatively little about the mechanisms involved. Steps have been made recently within both literatures to delineate the pathway from optimism or explanatory style to outcome. A major prediction of the RLHT is that an optimistic explanatory style enables individuals to maintain their motivation in the face of adversity and, thus, allows them to cope more effectively. Dispositional optimism correlates positively with problem-focused coping, the positive reinterpretation of a problem, and the attempt to accept the reality of situations that are perceived to be uncontrollable. In addition, optimism correlates negatively with the use of denial and the attempt to distance oneself from problems (Amirkhan, Risinger, & Swickert, 1995; Aspinwall & Taylor, 1992; Nes & Segerstrom, 2006; Nicholls, Polman, Levy, & Backhouse, 2008; Prati & Pietrantoni, 2009; Scheier & Carver, 1993).

Cultivating Optimism in Youth

The Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Fishful Thinking program provides parents and educators with in-depth information, activities, tips, and quizzes that focus on building optimism, as well as improving resilience, goal setting, empowerment (self-efficacy) and emotional awareness. For example, the Happiness Scavenger Hunt (http://fishful thinking.com/Optimism/ActivityScavengerHunt/ScavengerHunt) helps children to pay attention to the everyday experiences that bring them a feeling of happiness and makes noticing the good in the world a classroom or family activity. The Treasures Box is another way to cultivate optimism in children. Children decorate a box and a few times a week, they write down something positive that happened or that they accomplished on an index card and drop it in the box. Once a week, the class or the family pulls the “treasures” from the box and spends a few minutes sharing in the positive memory together (www.http://fishfulthinking.com/Optimism/ActivityTreasuresBox/TreasureBox). For more information on optimism, including articles, activities, and videos, please visit www.fishfulthinking.com.


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Karen Reivich, PhD, is the codirector of the Penn Resiliency Project, a research associate in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and a spokesman for the Fishful Thinking program.