Is your teen more of an optimist, or a pessimist?
It turns out that the answer can have a significant impact on their future.
Studies have shown that optimists experience a number of benefits later in life, as compared with their more pessimistic peers, including…
- Better test scores and higher GPAs
- Lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression
- Superior performance in a wide variety of sports
- More job offers, higher starting salaries, and more frequent promotions at work
- Lower rates of disease, and higher life expectancy
If your teen is optimistic, this is wonderful news!
But what if your son or daughter is more pessimistic, and tends to see the world from a more of a “glass is half empty” perspective?
The good news is that optimism is a learned skill, not an innate personality trait!
No matter what their initial level of optimism or pessimism, all students can learn how to become more optimistic.
Pessimistic vs. Optimistic Thinking
The first step in becoming more optimistic is understanding what we really mean by the word “optimism”.
While many of us think about optimism as a measure of how cheerful someone is on a day to day basis, it is actually a measure of how they explain the events in their lives.
If a student does badly on a test, they can explain it in any number of ways, including…
- I have an awful teacher
- I’m bad at math
- I’m not smart enough to be in this honors class
- I’m a bad test taker
- I didn’t get enough sleep the night before
- I didn’t pay enough attention in class
- I didn’t study enough for this test
Any of these explanations can be true. But the one they choose to focus on will have a huge impact on the way they feel & respond to the event.
A student who focuses on the explanation “I have an awful teacher” is likely to feel angry or frustrated about the outcome, and as a result may become more distracted and less attentive in class (after all, if this is a bad teacher, why bother listening?)
A student who focuses on the explanation “I didn’t study enough” is more likely to conclude “…if I study more next time, I can do better”, and will be more willing to invest the time & energy into preparing more effectively for the next test.
The type of explanation that you typically focus on — what scientists call your “explanatory style” — is what determines your level of optimism or pessimism.
When something bad happens, pessimists tend to see these setbacks as major problems that will last a long time and be very difficult to overcome. They tend to come up with general, long-term explanations for these misfortunes, such as…
- I’m never going to understand this!
- I’m doing horribly in this class…I’m such a bad student!
- My teacher hates me.
In contrast, optimists tend to see mistakes & failures as temporary, isolated incidents. They explain negative events in terms that are specific and within their power to change, like…
- This is a challenging problem, but I’m sure I can figure it out if I keep trying.
- This class is harder for me than others…if I want to earn a good grade, I’ll need to spend more time on it.
- My teacher was having a bad day today.
Interestingly, the opposite is true for positive events!
Optimists tend to see positive events as permanent, and pervasive…whereas pessimists see them as external, changeable, and specific.
Learning to be more optimistic
The first step in teaching students to be more optimistic is to help them understand that they have a choice about how to explain the events that happen in their lives.
One way to do this is to help them brainstorm a number of possible ways to explain both good and bad events that happen…just like in the example above about the bad grade.
Then, depending on the type of situation, they can practicing choosing the explanation from the list that seems like it will be the most helpful for them.
When BAD events happen, the most optimistic approach is to minimize their importance by explaining them in terms that are temporary and specific.
In contrast, when GOOD events happen, the most optimistic approach is to maximize their importance by explaining them in terms that are general and long lasting.
The following diagram illustrates how optimists view positive & negative events…
The goal = flexible optimism!
Optimists’ tendency to view setbacks as temporary roadblocks to be overcome, rather than insurmountable challenges, offers a number advantages.
However, it is not the best approach in every situation!
For example, pessimistic thinking can be very useful when it comes to…
- Estimating the amount of time and effort something will take (for example: how long it will take to drive to your appointment; how hard you’ll need to work on this paper)
- Deciding whether to engage in high-risk behaviors
- Envisioning potential negative outcomes, so you can plan how to deal with them
In contrast, optimistic thinking is more helpful in situations such as…
- Coping with disappointments or setbacks
- Thinking creatively, or brainstorming potential solutions
- Considering whether you have the ability to achieve a difficult goal
- Deciding whether to engage in low-risk behaviors that might result in embarrassment or disappointment, but that don’t pose any serious long-term risks
- Envisioning how good you will feel once you have accomplished your goals
Rather than thinking of optimism as “good” and pessimism as “bad”, my ultimate goal is for my students to have the ability to flexibly apply optimistic or pessimistic thinking in any situation, based on which one will be the most helpful.
The best approach is often a blend of both optimism and pessimism…
To be pessimistic about the amount of time & energy it will take to reach your goal, but optimistic about your ability to achieve it and the reward you’ll get when you do!
Based on your teen’s current level of optimism vs. pessimism, do you think they would benefit from developing their ability to think more optimistically?
If you’re not sure, you can encourage them to log on to the authentic happiness website at: http://authentichappiness.com and take the Optimism Test, to see how they score.
If they would benefit from developing their ability to think more optimistically, you can start by helping them to…
- Brainstorm potential explanations for the events in their life, so they can start to see that they have a choice about how to interpret them.
- Practice developing a more optimistic mindset, by adopting more temporary, specific explanations for bad event…and general, long-term explanations for good events.
- Encourage them to consider the types of situations where optimism would be helpful, and when pessimistic thinking would lead to better results.
If you have any questions along the way, please feel free to email me with your questions or comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you!