Take the next five minutes and imagine yourself in the future. This future self is doing wonderfully. You have worked hard and it is really paying off. You’re achieving all you set out to do. Everything has turned out in the best way possible. Now, how do you feel?
Regardless of how bright you think the future actually will be, there are plenty of practical reasons to be optimistic. First, your positive perspective on the future will pay off in the present, which you are more likely to enjoy. Not only will your friends appreciate your optimistic outlook, but you will probably even be around longer to enjoy life with them more. And, if you do experience health problems, being optimistic can help you better recover.
Well, it turns out that making yourself more optimistic is possible…and surprisingly easy. In a 2011 study, for example, researchers compared one group of people who engaged in the five minute thought exercise of positively thinking about their future selves, while those in a comparison group just imagined their typical daily activities. Participants in the Best Possible Self group significantly increased their optimism both after the first day, and after two full weeks. However, across studies with a variety of intervention methods, populations, and outcome measures, differing levels of success in changing optimism have been reported.
With the goal of understanding, overall, if optimism interventions work, a team of researchers recently conducted a meta-analysis; a method of combining results from individually published studies for a new statistical analysis. Authors John Malouff and Nicola Schutte recently published their results in The Journal of Positive Psychology.
Systematically searching the scientific literature databases (Google Scholar, Web of Science, etc.) they identified twenty-nine optimism intervention studies that included: measures of optimism, random assignment of participants, a (non-intervention) control group for comparison, and results statistically appropriate for recombination a meta-analysis. Next, they combined all the participants from the twenty-nine studies, a total of 3319, into a group who received optimism training and a group that did not. Their fresh analysis revealed that intervention did have an impact on people’s optimism; and happily, the change was an increase.
Since it does appear possible to increase optimism, why did some studies report more success than others? Remember that Best Possible Self exercise? Well, it ended up being a better intervention method than others (such as, for example, a positive psychology technique). Other elements that played a role ranged from how optimism was assessed to when (directly following the intervention or sometime later). Although, as the authors point out, such secondary analyses should not be viewed as causal. In fact, design factors within studies can end up being confounded with each other, driven by outside variables, or exist in too few of the studies to make concrete conclusions about. For example, interventions done completely online were found to be less successful than those including some person-to-person component, but out of the twenty-nine studies only five were completely online. Yes, training can help you become more optimistic, but the type of intervention and individual fit matter.
There is still a lot to learn in the field of optimism training, such as, how long do the effects last and what might make some people more successful afterwards? But, the good news is, even if you are not typically sure the glass is half full, there is hope for developing a brighter outlook. Perhaps a first step would be to imagine a future you, a person who is more optimistic.