Essentially, optimism is hopefulness about the future—a general belief that things will work out in your favor. Whether you are a devoted practitioner or devout skeptic, you’ve likely asked yourself at least once, “Does optimism produce actual life benefits or is it just feel-good fluff?”
A new study has provided evidence that cultivating optimism might be worthwhile. According to the paper, which was published last month in the journal Emotion, optimism appears to be particularly useful when tackling challenges or approaching situations that could elicit high levels of stress.
Researchers Heather Lench and Zari Carpenter explored the benefits of optimism using two separate studies. In the first study, more than 1,000 undergraduates completed a survey two weeks before taking their first psychology exam, assessing their anticipated grade and their emotions about the exam. One day before the exam, participants were surveyed again about their expected grade, as well as their study habits leading up to the exam. Two days after taking the test, participants reported on the actual grade they received, as well as their emotional response.
Indeed, the researchers found that there is likely a connection between optimism and effort. Greater optimism two weeks prior to the exam predicted more study hours, greater overall satisfaction with the quality of their studying, and a better grade on the exam. If students lowered their expectations the day before the exam, they’d study less and get a worse grade. This finding highlights that it’s not just optimism that drives effort and results, but rather unflappable optimism maintained over a steady period of time.
In the second study, the researchers used the context of the highly anticipated Match Day, a day when fourth-year medical students find out which hospitals they have been paired with for their residency. Where medical students receive their residency training can impact the trajectory of their medical career, making it a very important and often stressful culminating event after four years of rigorous study.
The 182 participants first reported their ranked list of residency programs. Two weeks before Match Day, researchers surveyed participants on several aspects of the matching process, such as their happiness and stress levels, their perceived likelihood of matching with their choices, and their anticipated level of happiness if they got into the program they ranked first.
On the day following Match Day, once participants found out which medical residency—if any—they’d been matched to, they received another survey assessing their happiness and stress levels.
Over 50 percent of participants matched with their top-ranked program and 2 percent of participants did not match at all. The researchers found that a high level of optimism toward matching with their top choice was associated with higher levels of happiness and lower levels of stress during the process leading up to the match decisions, as well as a greater likelihood that they matched with their top choice.
The study also refuted a common misbelief about optimism—that if I’m too optimistic and don’t get what I want, I’ll be even more devastated. Medical students who were optimistic but weren’t matched didn’t demonstrate greater levels of distress. In other words, the optimism seemed to fuel resilience in the face of failure.
Why? Optimism appears to fuel our efforts in achieving personal goals, and also improves the overall quality of our experiences while doing so, by increasing happiness and reducing stress. Less stress also reduces the likelihood of mental distress, a common side effect of striving. “For future events that are specific, controllable, and important,” conclude the researchers, “it appears optimism has benefits with very little cost.”
Shanna B. Tiayon, Ph.D., also known as “The Wellbeing Doctor,” is a writer, speaker, and trainer working in the area of well-being. Currently, Shanna is the owner of WellbeingWorks, LLC, a boutique well-being firm bringing together the best interdisciplinary knowledge in the areas of social psychology, human resources, research, and training design.