If anyone’s ever criticized you for being an eternal optimist, you might have wondered whether you should perhaps be more of a realist. After all, optimism can lead people to make potentially ill-informed decisions, taking away from their ability to adopt a more reasoned approach. If you’re constantly thinking the best of people and situations, might you be more likely to be blind-sided by those situations that don’t quite merit your trust?
Psychology itself doesn’t provide a clear answer about the possible benefits and risks of a chronically happy approach to life. Although there is evidence that being an optimist can help you feel better physically, mentally, and even cognitively, few studies actually examine what the long-term implications are of always seeing the bright side of life.
To help address this question, data from the Rochester Adult Longitudinal Study (RALS), is making it possible to investigate the developmental course of optimism over a 25-year period along with measures of health and well-being. The RALS, which I began along with my College of New Jersey collaborator Alan Waterman in the late 1970s (Whitbourne & Waterman, 1979) now is being continued under the auspices of a team of personality researchers headed, in the optimism study, by Michigan State University’s Jeewan Oh (2022).
One question driving the Oh et al. study was whether optimism as studied over the course of the years, among the same individuals, would show the slightly inverted U-shaped pattern reported elsewhere in large-scale survey studies, in which people of different ages are compared at the same point in time. By following individuals over the decades, it was possible to see whether people actually changed relative to themselves. In other words, once an optimist, always an optimist?
The second question Oh and our research team investigated was whether being optimistic over the long haul could, as shorter-term studies suggested, produce better health in later life. The unique design of the RALS made it possible to predict health outcomes of the participants over adulthood from optimism scores obtained as early as the college years.
Participants in the Oh et al. study consisted of 984 alumni from the University of Rochester divided into cohorts based on their year of graduation (1960s, 1970s, and 1980s). At their first optimism assessment, averaging across all cohorts, they were 32 years old and 47 percent were women.
Because the RALS was begun prior to the positive psychology movement, with its focus on the favorable poles of personality, our team put together our own optimism index from the initial questionnaire administered to the participants when they were in college. Rate yourself on each of these items to get a sense of the data that Oh et al. analyzed. For these items, rate a 1 for “definitely most uncharacteristic of you” to 7 as “definitely most characteristic of you”:
As you can see, this is not the average optimism scale in which people rate themselves strictly on optimism-related qualities. Instead, our measure was derived from the theory of Erik Erikson, and these items were from various psychosocial quality scales (e.g., Trust-Mistrust, Autonomy-Shame/Doubt, Initiative/Guilt). Oh et al. determined that these items would work as a measure of optimism by asking five experts in optimism to go through the entire RALS measure and choose the best ones for this purpose.
Participants also rated their life satisfaction (“satisfied with my life so far”), purpose in life (“I enjoy making plans for the future and working to make them a reality”), and self-rated health (1= poor to 5=excellent). Specific health items, included in the latter RALS waves, asked people to rate their compliance with 13 behavioral items, ranging from having regular physician visits to flossing their teeth (my favorite health measure).
Turning to the results, after constructing carefully-controlled statistical modeling tests, Oh et al. reported that, indeed, there does seem to be something like an eternal optimist. As we concluded, “optimism (was) just as stable over 13 years as it was over 25 years and higher than what was observed in other studies with shorter time intervals” (p. 7). A little, so-called "spaghetti" graph showing the raw scores of 10 percent of the sample charted over 25 years indeed revealed an overall steady set of scores. Although some people changed in relative order over time, optimism generally increased over time and did not show an inverted U-shaped pattern.
Looking at optimism and its relation to physical health, the findings supported the prediction that optimists would score higher on the study’s health rating item. Also, we also found specific associations between optimism and certain health behaviors. You might find these interesting in looking at what you’re doing now to promote your health. Optimists, over the 25-year period, were more likely to engage in physical activity, avoid harmful chemical substances, and limit their intake of unhealthy food. However, and this might not surprise you, optimism wasn’t related to alcohol consumption and somewhat disappointingly, from my point of view, flossing.
Overall, optimists also showed the psychological benefits of having higher life satisfaction and greater purpose in life. These effects were somewhat more pronounced than were the findings with regard to physical health. All in all, our conclusion is as follows:
As great as these findings might be if you’re already on the optimism bandwagon, what might this mean if your overall approach to life is less cheerful? Is it too late to turn things around?
One finding that keeps coming back in the RALS and other personality studies conducted over time is that your fate is not sealed by your young adult qualities. Although we did find relative stability in optimism, there was growth and there were even those occasional spaghetti-plot individuals who didn’t peak in optimism until their middle or later years.
Looking at the optimism items themselves, you can also see that having a positive outlook on life can take on a more nuanced quality than you might otherwise assume. Sure, you might not give yourself a 7 on your rating of your own optimism when asked point-blank, but you might feel that you have the ability to “take things as they come.” This isn’t a conventional optimism item, but it can indicate that you have a more placid disposition than you give yourself credit for.
Similarly, maybe you can tolerate frustration better than you realize. An optimist is someone, from this perspective, who can see the big picture and doesn’t mind getting thwarted once in a while. Again, it’s not a standard “do you feel optimistic?” item, but it was one we found to be a key component of a broader approach to understanding what allows people to see that there’s hope in the future.
To sum up, our findings show there’s no reason to get down on yourself for being someone that others accuse of being unsophisticatedly cheerful. At the same time, being an optimist may even help you engage in some of those all-important health-protective behaviors that will benefit your well-being over time. Let the pessimists have their day, but by staying optimistic your fulfillment will get you through the years.