It's possible to learn to be more optimistic

Posted on September 9, 2016

Optimists have good reason to be optimistic – research tells us that their sunny outlook means that they are likely to live longer, healthier, happier lives compared with others who have a habit of seeing a darker future ahead. This has led positive psychologists to attempt to teach optimism, so that more people might get to benefit from its apparent positive effects. But can you really learn to see the future more brightly?

John Malouff and Nicola Schutte at the University of New England in Australia scoured the research literature and contacted psychologists in the field to try to find all published and unpublished trials that had attempted to increase people’s optimism in some way, and that had included a control group, and that had randomly allocated participants to the intervention or the control condition. They ended up with 29 studies (just one unpublished) involving collectively over three thousand participants.

Most of the studies had used an established optimism intervention known as The Best Possible Self Intervention which involves instructing participants to spend half an hour or so “Imagining yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all the goals of your life …”. Other interventions used in the studies to induce greater optimism included things like CBT, mindfulness, self-compassion training, and also some quirky approaches like lying on a bed of nails and sensory isolation (these last two supposedly induce optimism through a relaxing experience).

Aggregating the results from all these studies revealed a small but significant increase in optimism for participants who received an intervention, as compared with control participants. Focusing on just those studies that used the Best Possible Self Intervention, this effect grew to medium in size. Shorter interventions actually seemed to be more effective than longer ones, but this is probably just because the most effective approach –Best Possible Self – is typically very short.

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Source material from British Psychological Society

Mental Health News