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Ch 2 anatomy of optimism and hope

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

Optimism and hope are two closely tied psychological concepts which dictate how we relate to life’s unexpected hardships. Being optimistic means believing - in the face of uncertainty - that there is a favorable solution to get out of the problems and obstacles we might be facing. Optimists tend to focus on the good side of things while ignoring everything that is out of their control. They believe that success is due to their constant efforts and dedication, and will undoubtedly be followed by other achievements in the future.

While optimism represents a dimension of our personality, the concept of hope is often seen by researchers as an emotion that precedes optimism. As one group of researchers suggest: “When people do have a high degree of control, they may no longer need to be just hopeful but can be optimistic because the outcome is now attainable.” (Bruininks & Malle, 2005)

Having hope means knowing that, regardless of the situation, we will always find the resources to cope with whatever life throws down our path. In short, hope is what keeps us motivated when we don’t have enough reasons to feel optimistic.

Optimism, stress, and well-being

The relationship between hope, optimism, stress and well-being has always been a hot topic for researchers from various fields of study. But before we discuss how an optimistic perspective relates to stress and leads to increased well-being, we need to identify the neural basis of optimism and hope.

According to an extensive literature review published in Experimental Neurobiology, the left-hemisphere is responsible for high self-esteem and a cheerful, optimistic perspective on the future, whereas pessimism and low self-esteem are the results of neurological processes taking place in the right-hemisphere. (Hecht, 2013)

Considering that the left hemisphere is the rational, analytical part of our brain, we could argue that optimism and hope are attitudes that derive from logic and reason. In other words, optimists are not just daydreamers who think problems will disappear miraculously, but people who are actively involved in making their lives better.

Since optimism and hope are the mechanisms that help us deal with the problems and difficulties of day-to-day life, researchers have focused heavily on the relationship between these two concepts and stress. Why? Because stress is the main issue when dealing with an unpleasant event.

As one recent paper suggests, “people who are more optimistic cope with adversities by addressing rather than avoiding them and their feelings about them; they engage with and accomplish goals to a greater degree; and they are more likely to attend to and pre-emptively address threats to their well-being. They also have better physical health, which can both result from and contribute to well-being.” (Segerstrom, Carver, & Scheier, 2017)

It seems that those who turn optimism into a way of life can easily cope with the stress and tension associated with life’s adversities (which they usually tackle head-on). But does optimism and hope have a direct effect on stress? If so, are there any biological or neurological mechanisms that mediate the relationship between optimism and stress?

To elucidate this mystery, let’s look at a study that explored the association between stress and cortisol levels. Based on what the authors have discovered, it seems that “optimism can buffer the association between stress perceptions and elevated levels of diurnal cortisol when individuals perceive higher-than-normal levels of stress.” (Jobin, Wrosch, & Scheier, 2014)

In other words, optimism regulates the release of cortisol (the stress hormone) when we experience higher-than-normal levels of stress. As a result, the adrenal glands of optimists will release just enough cortisol to help them get through stressful situations. Since cortisol is a hormone that gets released during stressful fight-or-flight situations, having too much of it may actually result in an unpleasant state of restlessness. Thanks to optimism, the mediator between stressful situations and cortisol release, we can tackle life’s difficult moments without “burning out” from too much tension. Another study on the relationship between optimism and cortisol, which involved a computer-simulated military training program, revealed that participants who were optimistic and persistent enough to complete the program had higher levels of cortisol than those who chose to abandon it. (Binsch, Van Wietmarschen, & Buick, 2017) Once again, it seems that optimism gives us that much-needed dose of cortisol that helps us overcome challenges and stressful situations.

But stress is not the only factor that seems to have a direct link with optimism. In a study that evaluated the relationship between optimism and high body mass index (BMI) authors discovered that “optimism was associated with long-term protective effects on BMI in women but not men.” (Serlachius, et al., 2017)

For women, having an optimistic perspective on life (and themselves) means lower chances of dealing with obesity-related problems.

Now that we’ve explored the neural basis of optimism and hope and discovered how these processes could even alter our brain chemistry, it’s time to unveil the psychological benefits of having an optimistic perspective on life.

The medical and psychological benefits of optimism and hope

From improved health (Rasmussen, Scheier, & Greenhouse, 2009) and longevity (Maruta, Colligan, Malinchoc, & Offord, 2000) to better cardiovascular health (Boehm & Kubzansky, 2012) and psychological well-being (Souri & Hasanirad, 2011), optimism seems to play a crucial role in almost every aspect of our lives.

In fact, an extensive meta-analysis published in Personality and Individual Differences concluded that hope and optimism could have a massive impact on our psychological and physical well-being. (Alarcon, Bowling, & Kharzon, 2013)

But aside from reducing the chances of having to deal with a medical or mental problem and nurturing our overall sense of well-being, optimism is also an excellent coping tool for people who are struggling with a severe condition.

For example, a systematic review involving studies on breast cancer patients has revealed that optimism along with social support, active acceptance, religiosity, and fighting spirit can improve the psychological adjustment and quality of life of patients affected by this terrible condition. (Novalany, 2017) That, in turn, increases the chances for a quick recovery.

Unfortunately, life can sometimes be so difficult and painful that many of us may begin to contemplate the possibility of ending it altogether. For people struggling with depression, rumination (“playing” the same negative thoughts over and over again) and suicidal thoughts are a constant part of life. That’s why researchers are constantly looking for strategies to prevent suicide.

A promising study that evaluated the effects of hope and optimism on rumination and suicidal ideation concluded that both hope and optimism “weakened the relationship between rumination and suicidal ideation.” (Tucker, et al., 2013)

In other words, an optimistic and hopeful attitude towards life prevent us from getting caught up in the spiral of negative thoughts that can lead to suicide.

All and all, optimism and hope seem to have unexpectedly positive effects on our long-term physical and mental health; a claim which is supported by researchers from various fields. A positive, optimistic attitude towards the future and a constant emotional balance represent the foundation of physical and mental resilience.

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