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The Power of Optimism

Jennifer Lee Mollen
Glen Allen High School

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In the late 1960s, a new era of psychology was born as psychologists began more
research of the internal control of ones thoughts. Rather than the focus being on the power of the
environment affecting individuals, it shifted to the power of an individuals personal
expectations, preferences, choices, decisions, controls, and helplessness that lead to their way of
thinking. It was determined that individuals indeed can control their own thoughts and actions,
and therefore Martin Seligman pronounced that one can choose to be an optimist, ultimately
leading to greater self-fulfillment and a happier life.
However, it is important to remember that a balanced optimist is the best optimist,
because they look at reality, acknowledge the difficulties and obstacles, but do not let it
discourage them (Sasson 2001). While being negative all the time results in a less positive
emotion, being positive all the time does not protect an individual well from sorrows that they
will inevitably encounter. Many studies show that being an optimist have positive effects on
ones work or school life, home-life, health, and overall happiness. In the headers to follow, these
studies will be outlined.
The Effect of Optimism on Work-life or School-life:
Studies show that optimists do better in school and succeed further at work simply
because they do not give up when faced with challenges. As Seligman claims, A composer can
have all the talent of a Mozart and a passionate desire to succeed, but if he believes he cannot
compose music, he will come to nothing. He will not try hard enough. While pessimists often
give up when things get tough or they get rejected, optimists accept such rejections as challenges
and are further motivated to pursue success with ambition, confidence, and happiness (Sasson

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2001). Optimism builds success, because positive individuals accept challenges and try harder in
order to achieve the outcome they want in life or at work.
In the book Learned Optimism, Seligman outlines a study done on telemarketers selling
life insurance. The study showed that when the telemarketers were optimistic individuals, they
tended to sell more life insurance contracts and better succeed at their job. The optimistic
insurers were more likely to achieve their goal than non-optimistic insurers, because they did not
let a no answer or a hang up bother them; they simply moved on and tried to sell insurance to
the next customer. They remained confident in their job skills even after having been denied.
This study was a direct example of how optimism leads to success in occupations; when one is
confident that they can do their job well and thinks positively about the possible outcomes of
their hard work they are inevitably successful in their occupation.
Additionally, students who are more optimistic are more likely to succeed in school.
Success goes to the adequately talented and optimistic individuals in school settings before it
goes to the most talented students (Seligman 1991). In other words, a person who is averagely
smart and positive will succeed more over a person who is really smart and less optimistic.
Student optimists are more likely to enjoy school, get good grades, and ultimately succeed as a
learner. Optimism is not only related to success, it leads to success, because when one expects
a great future they try harder in order to achieve that outcome (Sharot 2012).
The Effect of Optimism on Home-Life:
Optimism has a positive effect on relationships which ultimately has a positive effect on
how much a person enjoys their home life. A person at home exhibits many relationships
between their spouse, children, siblings, friends, or pets and internal optimism can help

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improve these relationships between individuals. When a person is more positive within
themselves, it allows for more positive relationships with other people, because mutual respect,
open and honest communication, and a genuine sense of love are present (Carlson 1992). When
individuals are happy and optimistic, it leaves room for them to be happy for other people and
teach them how to be optimistic. Good relationships are enhanced when individuals allow
themselves to adopt optimism and its values as they have a more positive outlook on life and a
greater respect and appreciation for their loved ones.
Seligman asserts that optimists believe that bad things are only temporary but good things
are more permanent, allowing for a more positive outlook on life and relationships. For example,
if a member in an individuals household is sick they know that they will eventually be well
again and they know that day will come soon. Or if there is a death in the family, they know that
while they will miss the person forever, the intense sadness will only last for a period of time it
is temporary. In contrast, when good things happen such as receiving a promotion or bringing
home a good grade, an optimist takes it as a more permanent thing by explaining it through them
being smart, hard-working, and deserving of the reward.
The Effect of Optimism on Health:
Seligman states that optimists [have] nineteen percent greater longevity, in terms of their
expected life span, compared to pessimists (Seligman 2002). A study involving the happiness of
nuns compared to their life span showed that:
Ninety percent of the most cheerful [of nuns] was alive at age eighty-five versus only
thirty-four of the least cheerful quarter. Similarly, fifty-four percent of the most cheerful

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quarter was alive at age ninety-four, as opposed to the eleven percent of the least cheerful
quarter (Seligman 2002).
Nuns who exhibited greater happiness in life tended to live significantly longer than those
who were pessimistic about things. Therefore, happy and optimistic people live significantly
longer. Another example of an individual living longer than expected was eight-year-old Daniel
who was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. After being diagnosed at age eight, Daniel was not
expected to live much longer. However, his optimism about living his life to the fullest allowed
him to live to an astonishing eleven years old. Daniels story illustrates how if one convinces
themselves that their health will improve, then it will, even if only temporarily.
Additionally, optimists are more likely to stick to health regimens and seek medical
advice when needed (Seligman 1991). Optimists take matters into their own hands and try to fix
their problems as fast and effectively as they can. They are more likely to go to the doctor when
they feel sick in order to receive treatment while pessimists have twice as many infections
illnesses and make twice as many visits to the doctor after their illness has already worsened.
Seligman also argues that the brain is connected to the immune system; therefore, states
of mind such as hope and optimism affect the immune system and a persons health. If one thinks
positively about their life and the future, they are less likely to become ill. Additionally, Carlson
argues that optimists are less likely to be stressed because they effectively recognize how to deal
with stressful situations and moments in life.
The Effect of Optimism on Happiness:
In Authentic Happiness, Seligman outlines the different types of smiles an individual can
have. One is the Duchenne Smile the genuine smile where the corners of ones mouth rises and

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crows feet are formed around the eyes. The other is the Pan American Smile, which is
inauthentic and done on purpose.
In the 1990s, Harker and Keltner executed a study where they looked at senior class
photos in a 1960s yearbook and classified each womans smile as either genuine or inauthentic.
After determining the smiles, they found these ladies and examined their accomplishments and
feelings on life. It was found that the women with the Duchenne Smiles were more likely to be
married, to have stayed married to one person, and to have acquired and experienced much
personal well-being among the thirty years in between their senior yearbook portraits. People
who genuinely smile often and lead an optimistic lifestyle are happier than the contrast.
Happiness is born from raising the bar and not comparing oneself to other peoples
successes. The Happiness Formula, according to Seligman, is H = S + C + V where S is ones
set range, C is the circumstances of ones life, and V represents the factors under ones voluntary
control. In the set range category, people must avoid the Hedonic Treadmill, which defines that
when material possessions are accumulated, a persons expectations rise and they are no longer
satisfied (Seligman 2002). They need something better than what they had before in order to
boost their happiness. In the circumstances category, happy people are well paid, married,
young, healthy, well-educated, of either sex, of any level of intelligence, and religious
(Seligman 2002). Very happy people spend the least time alone and they have good relationships
with themselves and their friends and family. As for the situations under ones voluntary control,
that would be the way they think. As psychology took a turn in the 1960s it was determined that
every person can control their own thoughts and their way of thinking; therefore, one can choose
to be optimistic, they just have to make the decision to be. As Abraham Lincoln once said,
People are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be. Positive thoughts and

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optimism ultimately lead to ones happiness and one can choose to have these positive thoughts
and optimistic viewpoints.
In many different ways and areas of study, it can be concluded that optimism leads to a
better work and school life, home-life, health, and overall happier life. Additionally, this
optimistic lifestyle is in ones control one can choose to improve their lives by being more
positive. Optimists look towards the bright side of life and [see] an opportunity in every
calamity whereas a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity (Churchill). Optimists do
not let their failures define them, and take their failures as challenges to work hard against and
succeed. Optimism promotes better relationships among individuals, because they can be happy
for themselves and for other people. Optimism leads to good health as thinking positively results
in less sickness and more belief that one will get better when they are sick. Finally, optimism
leads to overall happiness as they choose their state of mind and to look brightly toward the
Carlson, R. (1992). You can be Happy No Matter What. New York: MJF Books.
Sasson, R. (2001). How to be Optimistic. Retrieved from:
Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism. New York: A.A. Knopf.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press.
Sharot, T. (2012). TED Talk: The Optimism Bias. Retrieved from:

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Sokol, J. (2011). 3 Things that Optimistic People Do Differently. Retrieved from: http://sensophy