By Brianna Steinhilber
Do you tend to see the positive, even in trying situations? Or do you immediately assume the worst and focus on the negative?
When it comes to how we view the world, most of us fall into one of two categories: optimist or pessimist. And according to experts, whatever category you fall into has a lot to do with your upbringing.
“From my experience, optimism is both a personality trait and a product of our environment,” says Karol Ward, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist. “From an early age, babies and children pick up the emotional vibes in their homes. If the atmosphere is relaxed and loving, children blossom even if they innately have a tendency towards anxiety. But if the home environment is tense and filled with dysfunction, optimism is one of the first things to go. It’s hard to be emotionally open and hopeful when that is not being modeled for you by your caretakers.”
But if you recognize yourself as someone who tends to default to the negative, your childhood isn’t completely to blame.
Studies show that optimism is about 25 percent inheritable, and then there are other factors that affect our positivity — like socioeconomic status — that are often out of our control. Yet that still leaves a solid amount of wiggle room for us to develop a more optimistic outlook as adults. So if you’re someone who tends to see the negative in a given situation, there’s hope.
“Some people are optimistic by nature, but many of us learn optimism as well. Anyone can learn to be optimistic — the trick is to find purpose in work and life,” says Leah Weiss, Ph.D, a Stanford professor specializing in mindfulness in the workplace. “When we work with purpose or live with purpose, we feel more fulfilled and better equipped to see the glass ‘half full.’”
Many equate optimism with happiness. But while one can breed the other, they aren’t the same thing. And while optimists are usually pegged as those who only see the positive in every situation, experts say that’s not true, either.
“Positive thinking doesn’t mean that you ignore life’s stressors. You just approach hardship in a more productive way,” says Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW. “Constructing an optimistic vision of life allows one to have a full interpersonal world in spite of unfortunate circumstances … [it] reduces feelings of sadness/depression and anxiety, increases your lifespan, fosters stronger relationships with others and provides a coping skill during times of hardship. Being optimistic allows you to handle stressful situations better, which reduces the harmful health effects of stress on your body.”
In fact, experts claim that the real difference between optimists and pessimists isn’t in their level of happiness or in how they perceive a situation, but in how they cope.
“Optimism is a mindset that enables people to view the world, other people and events in the most favorable, positive light possible. Some people describe this as the ‘half glass full’ mentality,” says Dr. Aparna Iyer, psychiatrist and assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. “Optimists do acknowledge negative events, but they are more likely to avoid blaming themselves for the bad outcome, inclined to view the situation as a temporary one and likely to expect further positive events in the future.”