Ramp Up Your Optimism

You can learn to be more optimistic

Boost your health and well-being

Optimism predicts a host of desirable outcomes, including higher positive affect (better mood), higher well-being, greater resilience to negative events, and faster recovery from surgery. But can pessimistic people learn to become optimistic? Can optimistic people become even more optimistic? The answer is “yes.”

A recent experiment tested whether the best possible self (BPS) intervention could increase an aspect of optimism, namely positive future expectancy. The research subjects included 82 students in a Swedish university. Half of the students were randomly assigned to the BPS intervention group and half to a control group. Researches asked members of the BPS group to think for one minute about their best possible self then write about it for 15 minutes. Researchers asked members of the control group to think for one minute about a typical day in their life then write about it for 15 minutes. Then members of both groups created mental images for 5 minutes about the stories they wrote.

The researchers found that both positive affect and expectancy for a positive outcome increased significantly and expectancy for a negative outcome decreased significantly, but only for members of the BPS group. The effect of the BPS intervention did not depend on trait characteristics of the participants. Thus, its effectiveness did not depend on baseline levels of optimism, neuroticism, or extraversion of the participants. This study showed that a single, brief BPS intervention temporarily increased optimism and positive expectancies for the future.

Researchers in the Netherlands tested a slightly different version of the BPS intervention. Fifty-four Dutch-speaking people between ages 18 and 42 were randomly assigned to either a BPS invention group or a control group. Researchers asked those in the BPS intervention to “think of and write down all aspects that their future best possible self should encompass” in three broad domains: personal, relational, and professional. The BPS participants were instructed to begin each sentence with, “In the future I will …” to encourage them to develop realistic and attainable goals and for the participants to focus on positives rather than on negatives. Researchers requested participants in the control group to “think of and write down all the activities that took place during the last 24 hours and to reflect on their thoughts and mood during those activities.”

Next, participants in both intervention and control groups wrote a detailed and coherent personal story based on their earlier statements. Then, all participants performed a 5-minute visualization exercise in which they were instructed to imagine their story. Finally, researchers asked all participants to repeat the 5-minute visualization exercise once daily over the ensuing two weeks.

The researchers found significant increases in optimism, positive future events, and positive affect and significant decreases in negative future events and negative affect for participants in the BPS group compared to those in the control group over a two-week period. Interestingly, optimism increased for the BPS participants even if optimism was already high at baseline. This and previous studies suggest that the best possible self intervention can increase optimism.

In his wonderful book, Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman (1990) proposed other ways to improve optimism. I highly recommend buying a copy of his book, reading it thoroughly, and doing the exercises. I did so several years ago and my optimism increased, even though it was high to begin with. You can do the same and likely enjoy greater health and well-being.

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