How can optimism skills help people?

Posted: 26/09/2018

The research into the psychology of optimism is based on studies into a condition called ‘learned helplessness’. Psychologists and other researchers have discovered that people or animals show changes in behaviour when they decide they can do nothing to improve or change a situation they find themselves in. These changes include lowered mood, alterations in brain chemistry, increased or decreased appetite, lowered sex drive and decreased motivation.

These changes are typical of what we now call ‘depression’ in people.

While the majority of people and animals respond to adversity with a ‘learned helplessness’ or ‘giving up’ response, a smaller percentage were able to persist despite setbacks. Further research into how these people were able to display resilience and persistence revealed that their thinking processes were different from those who had given up or felt helpless. The optimistic responders talked to themselves differently, asked themselves different questions and continued to take action until something improved. When these optimistic responders were studied over time, results suggested that optimism helps us achieve better results at school and university, maintain better health, succeed in sport and do well in the workplace.

While our tendency towards optimism and pessimism is partly genetic, many studies have demonstrated that we can increase our level of optimism by learning the skills that natural optimists use, and that this  can actually help overcome and even prevent depressive episodes.

These skills form the basis of the questions used in the Optimism Boosters card pack.

Through extensive research into the different skills used in creating and maintaining optimism, three patterns emerged. The first pattern is the ability to ‘think into the future’ and clarify an effective goal. This is an extremely important skill that is under-utilised by many people facing difficulty.

Thinking our way into the future

The act of focussing on the goal generates changes in brain chemistry that increase motivation, drive and clarity. Focussing on how we want things to be (instead of how they are now) encourages our brain to accept the idea that things can and will improve. It also helps ensure that when we choose an action strategy, we choose one that moves towards the goal we have chosen. For example, many people initiate action without first clarifying their goal, and this can lead to disappointment. Many of us initiate action when we are upset or angry, and our action can make a bad situation worse. By stopping to clarify our goal, we can focus on what effect we would like to create, and hopefully choose an action that supports that goal.

The three key skill sets: goals, possibilities, strategies What do I actually want to achieve?How would I prefer things to be, ideally? There are ten ‘Goals’ cards in the Optimism Boosters set. These cards provide questions that can help people consider what they actually want to achieve and develop a clear and realistic goal for their chosen situation.

Challenging our stories

The second pattern in creating and maintaining optimism is the ability to listen to the stories we tell ourselves about good and bad events in our lives. Some stories (‘I failed the exam because I needed to do more preparation’) suggest possibilities for change. Other stories (‘I failed the exam because I’m not smart enough’) suggest that lack of success is permanent and unchangeable. Studies demonstrate that the stories we tell ourselves about why things happen are quite powerful because we then act as if those stories are the truth. Learning to challenge unhelpful stories (‘I can’t because I’m too busy’, ‘I’m just no good at this’, ‘Everybody thinks I’m a loser’, ‘That just happened because I was in the right place at the right time’) by questioning the evidence to support those stories is very effective and provides a ‘reality test’ for some of the unhelpful things we say to ourselves.

Generating fresh possibilities

There are ten ‘Possibilities’ cards in the Optimism Boosters set. They are designed to help to generate possibilities in the way we are viewing our situation. The aim is to see the situation as changeable, as well as gaining some perspective. This promotes changes to brain chemistry by providing a sense of control and wellbeing.

Strategies, actions and next steps 

The third pattern emerging from many optimism and hope studies is the ability to use problem-solving skills to generate strategies that will improve or change a situation. Many people know what they want but are unable to think of what to do to change things. The third set of questions (Strategies) is designed to assist people to think of things that they can do that will change or improve their scenario. For example, asking questions such as ‘What have you done in the past that might help?’ or ‘What are others doing in the same situation?’ can lead us to think of resources, actions and next steps we might be overlooking.

The ten ‘Strategies’ questions in the Optimism Boosters set remind us that we have many resources for initiating change as long as we ask ourselves helpful questions. The right question can change our brain chemistry by increasing possibility, control and motivation.

From Optimism Boosters Booklet
Author: Selina Byrne M.A.P.S.



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