Throughout my life, I have experienced varying levels of optimism and pessimism. As an adolescent, I was primarily a pessimist. Characteristic of pessimism, I would attribute my successes to external factors, and attribute my shortcomings to internal factors (Gruman, Schneider & Coutts, 2017). By doing this, I labeled shortcomings as reflective of who I was, and successes as circumstantial. It was difficult for me to believe any of my accomplishments had to do with my own actions. Now, however, as an adult, I consider myself much more of an optimist. I believe what goes well in my life is often due to my own actions (I attribute the good in my life to internal, stable, and global reasons), and believe what does to not be primarily my fault (I attribute the not-so-good results in my life to factors that are external, unstable, and specific).
Through this shift, I have found I have been happier, more satisfied, and, interestingly, more successful in my endeavors. I found I performed better academically and athletically and felt more satisfaction in my successes while more optimistic. Further, when I did not achieve my goals I did not let the initial disappointment bleed into other areas of my life. Rather, I let the disappointment go and continued on to the next activity, event, etc. My experiences were further validated in our book. As we learned, optimism is associated with happier relationships, better biomedical health, better mental health, better performance at work, and academic performance (Gruman, Schneider & Coutts, 2017). Thus, my experience is not unique; overall, optimism leads to better outcomes and is thus has concretely positive effects.
While this shift seemed to occur organically for me–as I think much of my previous pessimism was due to the struggles of adolescence–one can work towards a more optimistic orientation. This can be done via attribution retraining interventions (Gruman, Schneider & Coutts, 2017). These activities involve replacing pessimistic attributions with optimistic ones. For example, a more pessimistically-oriented person may attribute a good exam grade to the exam being easy (i.e. the good event is specific, external, and unstable). With attribution retraining interventions, however, one would work on shifting the one belief is the cause of the positive outcome. Rather than believe the above, the pessimistic person would attempt to replace such thoughts with those that attribute the success of the exam grade to internal, stable, and global factors. For example, the pessimistically-oriented person may initially think “I only did well on this exam because it was easy,” but through attribution retraining interventions they can replace this thought with something along the lines of, “I did well on this exam because I worked hard and am a capable student.”
As described earlier, there are numerous benefits to optimism. While it is not ideal to be blindly optimistic, having a more optimistically-oriented orientation can help one’s health and success. Through the use of attribution retraining interventions, one can work towards shifting their thoughts towards optimism. While such optimism may not initially feel natural, it is likely worth it to experience the various benefits listed. While life may not always feel happy, reminding oneself of the benefits of being optimistic can help one avoid a pessimistic thought spiral. This is similar to what I do; when I am having a difficult time, I remind myself that such pessimistic thoughts will likely lead to further unwanted events, and it would be far more productive to focus on optimistic ones.
Gruman, J. A., Schneider, F. W., & Coutts, L. M. (2017). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Los Angeles: SAGE.