Optimism: Definition And Research

Optimism: Definition And Research

Leadership IQ studied 11,308 employees to learn how optimism impacts employees' inspiration at work and feelings about their career.

People high in optimism expect that they're going to experience positive and favorable outcomes. But optimism is usually not a passive state; optimists typically expect good things to happen contingent on their active participation. So optimists will actively work to generate well-being for themselves (and often for their friends and colleagues).

Optimism reflects the belief outcomes of events or experiences will generally be good or positive. Dispositional optimism (Scheier & Carver,1985; 1993) refers to broad, stable individual characteristics that are influenced by interactions between environment and genetics. Optimism is associated with a wide variety of positive outcomes, including better mental and physical health, motivation, performance, and personal relationships. Optimists do respond better to disappointment than pessimists, with more resilience, and less stress. This is because, even when things go wrong, optimists expect them to get better, whereas pessimists take it as confirmation that things always go badly. Finally, optimism can be labeled as a trait or a state (Burke, Joyner, Czech, & Wilson, 1999). What this means is that people can be ‘born’ optimists, or they can be ‘situational’ optimists. Optimistic attitudes can be taught.


In one study, Leadership IQ surveyed 11,308 employees about their employee engagement, and compared traditional engagement survey questions with new self-engagement questions to measure which questions were more effective at predicting overall employee engagement and inspiration. See the study Employee Engagement Is Less Dependent On Managers Than You Think for the full report from this study.

Our study finds that only 13% of people have a high level of optimism, while nearly 33%% of people have low or moderately low optimism. This matters because people with high levels of optimism are far more inspired to give their best effort at work.

We asked people to rate how inspired they are to give their best effort at work (on a scale ranging from zero to six). As you can see in the chart below, people with low optimism rated that question 2.61 but those with high optimism scored a 5.29. In other words, highly optimistic people are 103% more inspired to give their best effort at work.

Optimism is good for your health

In one study, doctors evaluated middle-aged patients who were scheduled to undergo coronary artery bypass surgery. In addition to a complete pre-operative physical exam, each patient underwent a psychological evaluation designed to measure optimism, depression, neuroticism, and self-esteem. Six months after surgery, researchers found that optimists were only half as likely as pessimists to require re-hospitalization. In a similar study of angioplasty patients, optimism was also protective, as pessimists were three times more likely than optimists to have heart attacks or require repeat angioplasties or bypass operations (Ai, et. al., 2004).

Optimism can lead to resilience

Having a positive outlook in difficult circumstances is the most important predictor of it bouncing back. Pennebaker (1997) found that people find meaning in adversity have better long-term mental health outcomes. Pennebaker found that people who benefited most from a writing exercise about their trauma, were those who were trying to extract meaning from the adverse event. At 1-year follow-up, those who wrote about making meaning of their trauma went to the doctor and the hospital fewer times than people in a control condition or those who wrote about a nontraumatic event.

Optimism is also good for maintaining relationships

A longitudinal study of romantic couples tested whether or not optimists and their romantic partners were more satisfied in their relationship. Srivastava et al. (2006) found that “optimists and their partners both experienced greater overall relationship satisfaction”, “optimists and their partners saw themselves and each other as engaging more positively in a conflict”, and “the relationships of male optimists lasted longer than the relationships of male pessimists”. In short, they found that optimism effected the outcomes and goals in romantic relationships, but also their length and resilience.

the bottom line on optimism

Optimistic outlook is predictive of positive health outcomes, resilience, and relationship satisfaction. Optimism can be inborn, or it can be learned. Learned optimism was introduced by psychologist Martin Seligman, who is considered the father of the positive psychology movement. According to Seligman (1990) , the process of learning to be optimistic is an important way to help people maximize their mental health and live better lives.


Ai, A. L., Peterson, C., Tice, T. N., Bolling, S. F., & Koenig, H. G. (2004). Faith-based and Secular Pathways to Hope and Optimism Subconstructs in Middle-aged and Older Cardiac Patients. Journal of Health Psychology, 9(3), 435–450.

Burke, K. L., Joyner, A. B., Czech, D. R., & Wilson, M. J. (1999). An investigation of current validity between two optimism/pessimism questionnaires: The Life Orientation Test-Revised and the Optimism/ Pessimism Scale. Current Psychology, 2, 129-136.

Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science 8(3),162-166.

Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1985). Optimism, coping and health: Assessment and implications of generalized outcome expectancies. Health Psychology, 4, 219-247.

Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1993). On the power of positive thinking: the benefits of being optimistic. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2, 26-30.
Seligman, M. (1990) Learned Optimism : How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage Publishing.

Srivastava, S., McGonigal, K., Richards, J., Butler, E., & Gross, L. (2006). Optimism in Close Relationships: How Seeing Things in a Positive Light Makes Them So. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 143-153. Doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.91.1.143