When Is It Good to Be an Optimist?

The science is clear—optimists do well. Having positive expectations about the future is linked to better well-being, especially when dealing with difficult situations.

Optimists tend to be more proactive and take steps to ensure a better future; it is no surprise that there is evidence they are healthier, more successful, and have better relationships.

However, research suggests that not all optimism is created equal. Some types of optimism are associated with better outcomes than others. One aspect of optimism that matters is the level of specificity.

Optimism researchers distinguish between global optimism (also called dispositional optimism) and situational optimism. Dispositional optimism refers to people’s general positive outlook on life and is linked to all the good outcomes listed above. Situational optimism refers to positive expectations about a particular situation or domain, and it turns out that this type of optimism is not linked to the same positive outcomes as dispositional optimism.

In the case of romantic relationships, researchers have found that newlyweds who were more dispositionally optimistic (endorsing statements such as, “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best”) were more constructive when dealing with problems in their relationships and experienced smaller declines in marital quality over the first year of marriage.

In contrast, being optimistic specifically about one’s relationship (endorsing statements such as, “I expect my partner and I will always be able to resolve our disagreements,” and “I expect my partner and I will always communicate well”) was associated with less constructive problem-solving and steeper declines in marital quality.

Why might being optimistic about one’s relationship not be a good thing?

One reason that situation-specific optimism may not be as beneficial as dispositional optimism is because it can provide a false sense of security. If you believe things will generally work out for you, you may be more motivated to work through problems since you are confident things will turn out well in the end.

On the other hand, if you believe you will never fight with your partner and that you will always communicate well, you may feel your relationship is always going to be good and therefore not feel the same motivation to put work into it.

Another problem is unmet expectations. Dispositional optimism is very broad—a general tendency to expect favorable outcomes—and so it is hard to contradict these expectations.

Situation-specific optimism is focused on a particular domain and thus makes it easier to gauge whether one’s optimism is warranted. If you believe you and your partner will never argue, and then you find yourself arguing, this might lead to unmet expectations.

When people find evidence to counter their positive expectations, it can cause distress and avoidance, leading to worse coping. Rather than dealing with the arguments that are arising, people who expected not to argue at all might find themselves avoiding facing down the problem.

This same idea applies to how we approach our health—generally feeling optimistic about the future prompts people to engage in more health-promoting behaviors. However, being optimistic that you are very healthy and will stay very healthy can lead to a false sense of security.

If you think you are always going to be healthy, you may not feel the need to exercise or make sure you eat enough vegetables. And then when your health starts to fail and you find your expectations aren’t being met, it’s easy to want to turn away and avoid facing the problem.

The key to optimism and positive expectations appears to be either having expectations that are so broad they can’t be refuted (“Good things will come my way”) or realistic enough that they are attainable. Being optimistic that you and your partner will work through hard times seems likely to produce better outcomes than being optimistic you and your partner will never encounter hard times in the first place.

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