The origins of optimism

Optimism and pessimism are not two distinct styles but rather ends of a continuum. At the optimistic end people expect only good events to happen to them. They concentrate on stimuli that indicates a rosy outlook and ignore warning signs of unpleasant possibilities. At the pessimistic end people expect bad events to happen to them and become preoccupied with signs that something is going wrong.  Recently we have been told the further one is on the optimistic side, without reaching the oblivious dysfunctional state of being unable to see any pitfalls, the better life is.  Look at the all the benefits that some psychological researchers claim to have found for people who are higher on the optimism scale; they are purportedly happier, healthier and make more money.

However, careful examination of these claims show that social support[1], health, higher income[2] and optimism are really a cluster of characteristics that are frequently found together. This means that optimism could be the result of a popularity, good health and a good paying job, rather than the cause. Or there could be something else that contributes to all of these.

Research that suggests that optimism originates from having a supportive family with a higher than average economic standing[3]. Long term studies from the department of psychology at the University of Helsinki in Finland have shown that parental styles do have a measurable effect on the long term attitudes of children including their level of optimism. The mother’s own satisfaction with life, child rearing attitudes and opinions about the child’s temperament had very strong correlation with the daughter’s self-esteem which is tied to an optimistic outlook. The mother’s attitudes did not have as much effect on their sons.

However, when it came to the influence of the family’s socio-economic status (SES), the child’s gender did not seem to cause a difference. The lower the family SES, the more likely their children were to grow up to be pessimists. Even when adults coming from a  background of poverty and lack of opportunity moved up in education and occupational status from their family of origin, their optimism did not increase as much as a person who had these benefits growing up.

Think about this logically. A child doesn’t have any influence in choosing their gender, their parent’s attitudes or their parent’s income and social status. So if a person’s environment is more likely to influence their level of optimism than their attitudes are,  what is the purpose of promoting optimism as a benefit?

The answer? It benefits those doing the promoting. People keep reading books on how to be optimistic, assuming they will find the key to happiness, or at least to gaining wealth and opportunities. However, these books ignore the research that shows many of the characteristics of an optimist are developed during childhood.  And the books do not explain how to go back in time and change the way one grew up.

Rare is the individual who is content with his or her life. Most of us are seeking something better, so we listen to people who have found something that sounds like it may work, and we buy their books. When we don’t find a better life using their proposed method, we search for something else. The production of self-help books seems to be endless, probably because most are not helping.

[1] House, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science, 241, 540−545.
[2] Lorant, V., Deliège, D., Eaton,W., Robert, A., Philippot, P., & Ansseau,M. (2003). Socioeconomic inequalities in depression: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Epidemiology, 157, 98−112.
[3] Heinonen, K., Räikkönen, K., & Keltikangas-Järvinen, L. (2005). Dispositional optimism: development over 21 years from the perspectives of perceived temperament and mothering. Personality and Individual Differences, 38, 425−435.
This entry was posted in Creativity, Mental health, Optimism and Pessimism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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