Optimism is an expectation for positive or desirable outcomes to occur. Viewed by some as an inherent and evolutionarily adaptive aspect of human biology, it has been examined by psychologists both as a relatively stable dispositional trait (“big optimism”) and as a less stable, situation-specific state of mind (“little optimism”). In its dispositional form, optimism has numerous similarities with the psychological constructs of explanatory style and hope. As a situation-specific variable, it is has similarities with the constructs of confidence and self-efficacy. In both forms, optimism is believed to be closely linked to positive emotions and approach behavior.
Optimism and Health
Numerous studies have examined optimism as a correlate of mental and physical health, and there is strong evidence for its wide-ranging benefits. From a mental health perspective, optimism is associated with lower daily hassle scores and lower levels of perceived stress. Studies across a wide range of populations (e.g., students, working professionals, victims of violence, medical patients, caregivers) have shown that optimism is also associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression. In addition, greater perception of control, fewer mood disturbances, less loneliness, higher levels of life satisfaction, and higher levels of self-esteem have been observed as correlates of optimism. Finally, optimism also appears to be associated with lower levels of chronic anger and less suppression of anger when it does occur.
From a physical health perspective, optimism shows positive associations with both self-reported and objectively assessed outcomes, and the strength of these associations is similar for healthy cohorts and patient cohorts. For example, healthier lifestyle habits, fewer physical symptoms, better physical functioning, and lower levels of pain have been documented among individuals high in optimism. Physiological markers of health (e.g., blood pressure [BP], blood glucose level) and immune system functioning also appear to be better among individuals high in optimism. Among cardiac patients, optimism has been associated with fewer postsurgical complications, reductions in postsurgical angina, better ratings of physical recovery by hospital staff, decreases in coronary risk scores over time, and fewer readmissions to the hospital.
Positive consequences of optimism have also been observed among cancer patients for outcomes such as physical symptomatology, physical functioning, and cancer antigens. Studies that have examined optimism in relation to survival or mortality have generally shown small but significant relationships between the two constructs.
Optimism in Sport and Exercise
Studies in the domains of sport and exercise have also documented a number of benefits associated with optimism. Interviews with Olympic athletes, their coaches, and family members suggest that these individuals are characterized by high levels of dispositional optimism and hope. Optimism has also been shown to correlate positively with measures of mental toughness among athletes. Similar to findings in other domains, athletes high in optimism report greater use of approach-oriented coping strategies (e.g., logical analysis, increased effort) and less use of avoidance-oriented coping strategies (e.g., disengagement) when facing difficulties. They have also been shown to exhibit greater persistence following unsuccessful performances and to experience higher levels of positive affect following successful performances. In addition, optimistic athletes appear to have lower levels of perceived stress as well as lower burnout risk scores.
Exercise-related studies have supported the distinction between big (dispositional) optimism and little (activity-specific) optimism, and they have shown that these constructs are differentially related to exercise cognitions. Specifically, big optimism appears to correlate positively with longer-term thinking about exercise (e.g., planning and intentions), while little optimism appears to correlate positively with shorter-term thinking (e.g., decision making [DM]). At a more global level, there is evidence that high levels of optimism are associated with high levels of physical activity (PA), while lower levels of optimism are associated with lower levels of PA. This positive relationship between optimism and PA levels has been observed in samples of young adults as well as samples of elderly adults.
Optimism is defined by positive outcome expectancies, and it is reliably linked to positive affect and approach behavior. Numerous mental health correlates of optimism have been identified, including lower levels of perceived stress, anxiety, and depression. Physical health correlates have also been identified, and they include healthier lifestyle habits, better immune system functioning, and more positive reactions to trauma and disease. Among athletes, optimism is associated with approach-oriented coping, mental toughness, persistence following failure, and reduced burnout risk. Within the wider population, it is associated with exercise-related planning, exercise-related DM, and higher levels of PA. Together, these associations suggest that optimism is an important correlate of cognitions, emotions, behavior, and performance.
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