Feature

Monitor staff

Researcher Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, is setting the record straight about optimists. They're not the flaky creatures sometimes depicted in the popular and scientific press. And they don't always fall apart when faced with a setback.

Some people say that "optimists are naive and vulnerable to disappointment when they come face to face with reality," says the assistant psychology professor at the University of Kentucky who studies how optimism affects the immune system. "My evidence suggests that optimists are not naive. They are, however, wiser in expending their energies and better at directing their attention to and elaborating [on] positive information."

Segerstrom's groundbreaking work on optimism was recognized in May when she won the $100,000 first prize--psychology's highest monetary award--at the 2002 Templeton Positive Psychology Awards. The Templeton prizes--started by APA in 2000 and underwritten by the John Templeton Foundation--were created to encourage mid-career scientists to focus their research on positive psychology topics.

Other finalists for the 2002 awards:

  • Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, associate psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, won the second-place prize of $50,000 for her work on developing a "science of human happiness."

  • Kennon M. Sheldon, PhD, assistant psychology professor at the University of Missouri, won the third-place prize of $30,000 for his research on personal goals and their effect on human growth and development.

  • Laura D. Kubzansky, PhD, assistant professor in the department of health and social behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health, won the fourth-place prize of $20,000 for her research on the role of resilience in health and disease prevention.

Optimists work harder to succeed

Suzanne Segerstrom became interested in the study of optimism while a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles. Studying under Shelley E. Taylor, PhD, Segerstrom began researching the connection between optimism and psychosocial factors in HIV patients. "As I started to study HIV more, I became interested in whether these same factors were also affecting health and disease progression," she says.

One line of Segerstrom's research looks at why and when optimism is associated with lower immune parameters. Several studies have reported that optimists show signs of short-term immune suppression under stress, says Segerstrom. This contradicts the usual findings that optimism is protective against stressors. But while some researchers attribute this weakened immune function to "disappointment," Segerstrom says that explanation "didn't and doesn't make sense."

The usual thinking goes that "if you're optimistic, and you believe good things will happen, if they do not happen, then you become disappointed and more stressed," she says. But optimists usually have better long-term health outcomes--such as less risk of heart disease. "If optimists were really that vulnerable to setbacks, they should have bad long-term outcomes as well," she says.

How does Segerstrom's research explain why optimists may get sick or stressed out in the short term? "It's not that optimists get disappointed when things are not working out perfectly," she notes. "It's that they try harder to achieve their goals. They put forth more effort, and it's this increased effort that is associated with downward changes in the immune system," she says. Pessimists, on the other hand, would be more likely to give up.

'The pursuit of happiness'

When Sonja Lyubomirsky immigrated from Russia to the United States as a child, she was struck by Americans' seeming obsession with happiness. So, as a researcher, she "became interested in how people pursue happiness and why some people are so much happier than others," even when they experience trauma or other adversities, she says.

Lyubomirsky uses her "Construal Theory of Happiness" to guide her research on why and how some people are happier than others. The theory asserts that "happy people construe the world, themselves and other people in more positive and adaptive ways than unhappy people do."

In a study of high school students heading to college, Lyubomirsky's findings bore out her theory:

  • Happy students evaluated the college they chose to attend more positively over time, while unhappy students didn't change their evaluations. The happy students fantasized about what it would be like to go there, and, after they decided to go there, they liked that college even more than before. "That's a very adaptive thing to do," Lyubomirsky says.

  • Unhappy students derogated the colleges they were admitted to but chose not to attend; happy students didn't change their ratings. "I find this is consistent throughout my work that unhappy people are always obsessing and dwelling on things, to persuade themselves that they really are a good person."

  • Happy students disparaged schools that had rejected them; unhappy students did not. "When it really mattered, and their self-esteem was at stake, happy students devalued the colleges that rejected them," she says.

Goal-setting and well-being

Kennon Sheldon, who studies how goal-setting impacts personal growth and well-being, has good news for people working to improve their lives: Change is possible, but it takes hard work. It also takes finding and setting goals that fit your personality.

"That's actually a very controversial issue in the well-being literature," says Sheldon. "A genetic determinist [might] say that you pretty much have whatever you inherited, and you can't change it....But we've been consistently showing that pursuing goals can lead to an increase in well-being," says Sheldon, who's writing a book called "Optimal Human Being" (Erlbaum Press), which is due next year.

Sheldon's research on psychological needs finds that to be happy, people should seek autonomy, competency and relatedness in their lives. As for goal-setting, if people pursue goals that fit their personalities, that they believe in and are interested in, then they're able to apply themselves longer. "If you make the right goal selections for yourself, you're more likely to keep going, which is more likely to lead to good progress or goal attainment during the period of striving," he says. That, in turn, he says, is more likely to create positive experiences in your daily life.

An optimistic nature is good for your heart

Laura Kubzansky began research on health and well-being nearly a decade ago. After noticing that few studies looked at how positive emotions might benefit health, she asked herself, if negative emotions are bad for your health, then are positive emotions good for your health?

The answer is yes. In fact, Kubzansky's research following 1,300 men in their 60s over a 10-year period found that the more optimistic men were about half as likely to develop heart disease than the more pessimistic men.

Using a subset of the first sample of men, Kubzansky and colleagues also looked at whether or not optimism was also protective for pulmonary function, which declines with age. The finding showed that the more optimistic men had a slower rate of pulmonary function decline over about a 7-year period.

But despite her findings, Kubzansky says there's hope for pessimists. "We want to make sure people know that optimism is not fixed at birth. There are strategies for helping people to change the way they frame the world," she says. "Although they're not effortless," the possible health benefits make them worthwhile.