Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Rethinking optimism

By Christine Carter

Believe it or not, optimism is a controversial value to some people. When I give talks, people frequently question me about why optimism is something they should want for their children.

Optimism- Optimistic Child I can see how fostering optimism could be mistaken for fostering a Polyannaish, La La Land mentality in our children—which, in turn, could make kids more vulnerable in this mean, mean world. To some people, critical thinking (and perhaps a dose of protective cynicism) seem more valuable for getting ahead.

To others, optimism might seem desirable, but seems like something kids are either born with or not. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard one child categorized as Eyore to his sister’s Tigger.

To me, two things are very clear:

(1) Optimistic thinking is a huge advantage in this rapidly changing world. Optimists are happier, of course, and they are more successful in pretty much every way you can imagine. Academically, athletically, professionally, and socially—optimists do better. Also, they are healthier. This is not my opinion; there is a ton of scientific research that documents this.

(2) Optimism is a learned skill that can be taught and practiced with kids.

For years, I’ve defined optimism the way Martin Seligman, author of The Optimistic Child, does. According to Seligman, optimists explain life’s events differently than pessimists do.  For example, pessimists take negative things that happen to them personally, while optimists find them unlikely to happen again; you can read more about that in this post.

But even as I’ve subscribed to this definition of optimism, I’ve also had the nagging sense that this approach to life is challenging—though not impossible—to teach. Fortunately, there has been some new research and practices that have made this goal seem a lot less daunting.

Recently, I’ve been looking at C. R. Snyder’s research on hope, Brene Brown’s research on faith, and Laura King’s “Best Possible Future Self” intervention. Taken together, this body of research paints a slightly different picture of optimism, a broader one. Optimism, hope, faith, and confidence are all positive emotions about the future. (These things, to me, are both feelings and skills; researchers sometimes see hope only as a set of skills and not an emotion.)

I don’t really worry about the exact definitions of these emotions, or about some of the subtle differences between them (like between hope and optimism, for example). I want them all for my children; I want them to have the confidence and hope and faith they need to make their dreams come true.

Here’s where the “Best Possible Future Self” exercise comes in. (You can find a description of it here.) Research has repeatedly shown that this exercise—which is a way of both teaching and practicing optimism—makes us happier and more optimistic.

The gist of it is that researchers have their subjects write for 20 minutes about their “best possible future self.”

This exercise’s power comes from having people (1) imagine and (2) articulate their dreams for themselves. Both of these things are really important for our children to be able to do. And both things take practice.

Although Sonja Lyubomirsky, who has replicated King’s research on best possible selves, argues in The How of Happiness that some of the power of this exercise comes from the writing process, I’m not sure that it is realistic for us parents to create writing assignments for our children. (But teachers, please, be my guest!)

We parents can still practice optimism by introducing our kids to the the idea of their “best possible future selves.” Here’s how:

  • Have one kid do this exercise out loud each day, perhaps at dinnertime, until everyone has had a chance to take a turn. When parents or other adults take their turn, they can model for the group.
  • Alternately, and more true to the scientifically-validated intervention, you could do this privately during some quiet time with each of your kids. When I did this with my daughter, I actually took notes for her while she talked. She took those notes to her room, and now she draws pictures of her “best possible future self.”
  • Have the family member taking his or her turn describe what his or her best possible self looks like in one, five, or 10 years. Feel free to pick any time frame that works for your family.
  • Whoever is doing this exercise should describe all arenas of life: friends, family, careers, hobbies, etc. With kids, there is, in my experience, a fair bit of fantasy in this, and that is okay. (It’s also funny and cute. But don’t laugh!)
  • Lyubormirsky’s research suggests that the people who get the biggest happiness boost out of this are the ones who find it more interesting, challenging, and meaningful—and keep trying to envision their “best possible future selves.” Each time Molly draws a picture of her “best possible future self,” she is practicing optimism.

    Exercises like this become self-fulfilling because they help us both articulate our goals and see that they are attainable. And that, of course, makes us feel hopeful, optimistic, and confident about our future. What more could we want for our kids?

    Cross-posted from Christine Carter’s blog, Raising Happiness, Science for Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.

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