Optimism can make you happier—but it’s all in how you use it

What does “the good life” mean to you? More time? More money? More happiness? It's a fairly vague yet promising phrase which resonates differently with everyone.

At the USC Performance Science Institute where I work, we aim to help people live longer, healthier lives, and we use science as a tool to improve performance in many aspects of our lives. Part of our mission involves helping people develop something called “Subjective Well-Being.” This means, quite simply, how good people feel about themselves — measured in terms of how much they report feeling engaged, content, or happy with their lives and their trajectories.

Research supports the conclusion that positive subjective well-being leads to better health and longevity. But can we actually increase it, and take advantage of its benefits? At the Performance Science Institute, we promote the practice of optimism as one tool in the battle for an enriched life and better subjective well-being. We define optimism as a “disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions, and to expect the most favorable outcome.”

Optimism is an emotionally charged word. Many people would say it's an innate quality: you either are an optimist or you're not. But optimism can be practiced and enhanced — if you understand exactly what it is and how it works. We tend to think of optimists as people who always see the positive side of things and paint a rosy picture of the world. But research tells us this is not really the case. To illustrate how optimism actually works, we need to debunk some of the common myths about optimists and understand how optimism supports living longer and performing better.

Myth #1: Optimists always see the glass half-full

Actually, optimists may tend to see the glass half-empty. According to the research, optimists pay more attention to negative information than pessimists do — because it can be useful to them. A study in which university students read about the risks and benefits of specific health behaviors, such as UV exposure or taking vitamins, found that students who scored higher in optimism spent more time than pessimists reading about risks. The results also showed that optimistic students paid more attention to risk information when it was relevant to themselves. So if an optimistic student reported higher vitamin use, they spent more time reading about related risks than pessimistic vitamin-users. The reality is that optimists don't see only the positive in every situation. They actually process negative information more readily than pessimists, when it is relevant to them. And they use that information in their day-to-day lives.

Myth 2: Optimists live in denial

Again, science shows us that this perception of optimists is not accurate. Just as optimists pay closer attention to negative information than pessimists, they are also more realistic about negative life events that are out of their control. Research on patients with Stage I breast cancer found that those who scored higher in optimism were more likely to accept the reality of their diagnosis. They reported lower levels of denial, and they expressed less psychological distress about the diagnosis. You might think that optimists experience less psychological distress because they're in denial — but research suggests that their acceptance of reality is what allows optimists to cope with their situation and accept what they cannot control.

Myth 3: Optimists don’t have a competitive edge

Because of the common misconception that optimists don’t deal with negative information, many people think that optimists lack a competitive edge. However, by processing negative information and accepting situations outside of their control, optimists are better equipped to excel at a high level. Olympians, who exemplify some of the highest levels of performance, consistently ranked high in optimism in their list of characteristics. Optimism is positively linked to entrepreneurial success, too. We can even see the benefits of an optimistic view in everyday tasks. A study in which participants worked on anagram puzzles with solvable and unsolvable questions found that optimists moved away from the unsolvable problems a whopping 4 minutes sooner than their pessimistic counterparts, thus performing better on the task overall. Optimists were able to quickly disengage from problems they knew they couldn’t solve and tackle ones they could.

Based on the research, it seems we need to update the connotations of optimism. Optimism is not a false, rosy view of the world, but is rather 20/20 vision for our future lives. Yes, optimists acknowledge positive information, but they are also adept at using negative information to their advantage. This allows them to increase their subjective well-being (in other words, feel better about themselves) and perform at a higher level.

Now that we know optimism can help us live a better life, what can we do to cultivate an optimistic mindset? Here are a few tips to get started, taken from real research on optimism.

Key Practices for Optimism

  1. Imagine your best possible self, and track your progress toward that goal accurately, with a focus on improvement.
  2. Change your relationship with how you think about the future, and connect it to things you’ve already overcome. If you’re overwhelmed, write down what you’ve experienced in the past that can help you deal with your situation.
  3. Develop a clear sense of what needs to be done, with a focus on process and things you can control — not just rosy outcomes.

A version of this post was previously published on Thrive Global

About the Author
Haley Barrows

Haley Barrows is a Project Specialist at at the USC Performance Science Institute. With a background in psychology and sports performance, she is interested in using science to help people perform in high-pressure environments.