The Life-Changing Effects of Optimism

We desire two things in the way we live our lives — to be effective and to be happy. To be effective is to have higher batting average in achieving our goals. To be happy is to be happy, no explanation needed.

Many years ago, I was surprised to learn how optimism makes a difference in attaining both. It was a quality that I had ignored because I had the impression that some people seem to be naturally optimistic and others pessimistic.

What is optimism? It is, says the dictionary, “a tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.” Its opposite is pessimism, which means “the tendency to see, anticipate, or emphasize only bad or undesirable outcomes, results, conditions, problems, etc.” (

Suppose I am scheduled for a job interview. An optimist is upbeat, excited and feeling that he will impress the interviewer. The pessimist on the other will be apprehensive, thinking of the worst scenario, and already feeling a bit depressive at the thought that he will be rejected. A realist, on the other hand, will perhaps just prepare and do his best, not too excited and not so apprehensive, ready to accept whatever is the outcome of the interview.

Normally, we will say that the realist is more correct in his outlook. But after learning about the effects of optimism, I am no longer so sure that realism is necessarily the best disposition. I realize that optimists (as well as pessimists) create part of their own future due to their attitudes. Thus the optimist has certain advantages not found among the realists and much less the pessimists.

The famous psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman, wrote in his book Learned Optimism:

“Hundreds of studies show that pessimists give up more easily and get de-pressed more often. These experiments also show that optimists do much better in school and college, at work and on the playing field . They regularly exceed the predictions of aptitude tests. When optimists run for office, they are more apt to be elected than pessimists are. Their health is unusually good. They age well, much freer than most of us from the usual physical ills of middle age. Evidence suggests they may even live longer” (p. 5).

A pessimistic person will easily give up, while an optimistic person will keep on trying even when defeat looks certain. One of the largest insurance companies in the world is Metropolitan Life. Every year it selects thousands of qualified applicants to become new salespeople to sell life insurance. The applicants had to pass exams and interviews. After they were hired, the company would spend a lot of money training these new employees. The company, however, felt very frustrated because a high percentage of these hirees would give up and resign. They consulted psychologist Martin Seligman who suggested to them that he was going to give applicants a test on optimism. He hired those who scored high in optimism even if they flunked the standard tests of Metropolitan. The results were surprising. Those who scored high in optimism stayed more years in the company, and outperformed the pessimists in sales by up to 88%.

Studies were made in other industries, such as banking, real estate, and automotive sales, and the results were the same. Author Steven Kotler wrote: “No matter their industry, the hopeful outsold the hopeless by 20 to 40%. . . . On the job, they are better at handling pressure, overcoming adversity and have a higher degree of ‘employee engagement.’”

More important, optimism leads to a happier life. Dr. Betty Phillips wrote: “Optimism and pessimism are explanatory styles of thinking about life events which predict a positive vs. negative mood and expansive vs. Inhibited behavior. People with optimistic explanations of life generally feel happier and more energized to cope with obstacles, seeing them as challenges rather than failure experiences. Optimists are more likely to analyze whether setbacks are situational, then are able to develop plans to remove obstacles to their goals. Pessimists are more likely to view life problems as personal failures, blame themselves, feel unhappy and give up trying to change.” (

Next time, don’t reproach yourself for being pollyanish. That attitude may spell the difference.