Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Optimism and Emotional Health – What’s the Connection? (by Megan Connolly)


It’s as simple as the weather forecast. Is lá breá cúnamh do chách.

Its an Irish saying..”A fine day is a help for all.” If you see rain, you stay inside. If you see sunshine, you venture out. If the weather is fine, and the roads are good, you’ll make today the day that you venture out and take a little trip.

Now, imagine, on this same day, you have a fairly daunting task ahead of you. Say, travelling a long distance, starting a new job, caring for a relative, balancing work and childcare, or working to meet a new group of people. (For some of us, this may all be happening on the same day.)

From your mind’s point of view, what’s the forecast for this new adventure? Rain-soaked, unattainable and fool-hardy? Or, as bright as the sunshine itself?

Depending on your outlook, you are that much more (or less) likely to lace up your boots and tackle what’s ahead of you. This is because your outlook sets the tone for your actions. If you think you are likely to succeed, you will try. If you can’t see the point, or see hazards everywhere in your path, you might not.

And so we begin with our introduction to optimism. For it is here that every journey starts. We aren’t all natural optimists. Whether or not you tend to see the glass half full or empty is more or less hard-wired. An optimistic outlook can, however, be learned.

Why try to develop optimism? Because when we believe that things have a good chance of working out, we are more likely to try. And when we try, we are more likely to succeed. And as you have figured out by now – every day motherhood introduces new challenges for us to try to succeed at.

Optimism helps us persevere and among other many benefits, has been shown to facilitate coping with, and acceptance of, stressful, life-changing and traumatic events. Optimists tend to be more successful in their lives, live longer, and have better relationships. Optimism is good for you – just as long as it is balanced with realism. Experience suggests that sometimes things are worth taking a cold, hard look at. The balanced result is a very helpful approach developed by the psychologist Martin Seligman known as Realistic optimism. When we are realistically optimistic, we choose to expect that things will work out in our favour unless:

1. the stakes are too high to risk an error (such as when health or safety are at issue); or

2. we have clear and compelling evidence that we should be more cautious.

Realistic optimism works against the mind’s tendency to give more weight and credence to the negative. Because the brain is first and foremost meant to keep us out of harm’s way, it has a high sensitivity to danger. It’s an effective survival mechanism, but it can also prevent us from doing what is necessary to grow and change.

The ‘bad stronger than good’ bias can lead to all manner of distortions in our thinking. We remember the one nasty thing our partner said over the 10 loving things they also mentioned. We avoid returning to a place where we made a mistake, even though we had many successes there. We go over the silly thing we said at a party over and over (and over!) in our minds even though most of the night was spent in pleasant company. And we start to doubt ourselves.  

Do any of these scripts sound familiar? “They won’t like me.” “I’ll never get the hang of this.” “I shouldn’t even try.” Can you imagine saying these things to a friend? The very thought of undermining another’s belief in the promise of things to come could feel downright mean to many of us. So why do we allow it to happen to ourselves? As mothers, we are routinely learning the ropes of an entirely new world. We have to try to be optimistic about our chances. 

So what exactly is the ‘right’ outlook for the tasks on our horizon? How can we clear the lens and calibrate our view to make sure that the way we think about what’s ahead of us is a help and not a hindrance?

The key to realistic optimism is evidence. Do we have evidence that our fears of failure are founded? Do we have proof for our self-criticism? Do we know that our expectations of defeat are based on fact? Or, is the rain cloud of doubt just that – a cloud – that can be blown away by a few well-crafted questions to ourselves?

Fly too close to the sun, the adage goes, and we can get burned. Yet, when we are weighed down to the land by our fears, we also can’t feel its warmth. Balanced optimism nudges us to travel that middle ground. Try it out. Learn. Try again. Use evidence to guide the flight paths we choose.

On any journey, we can’t choose the weather. But we can choose our outlook.  So let’s start today with a belief in ourselves. A Vote for Mom. After all, we’ve come this far. Evidence that we have what it takes to travel farther still.    

For a great read on Learned Optimism:

Seligman, M. (1998) Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind to Change Your  Life. Simon and Schuster, New York.

Additional supporting references:

1. Carver, C. S., Pozo, C., Harris, S. D., Noriega, V., Scheier, M., Robinson, D., et al (1993). How coping mediates the effect of optimism on distress: A study of women with early stage breast cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 375–39

2. Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E.,  Finkenauer, C. (2001) Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.

About the Author (Megan Connolly)

Megan Connolly holds an MSc. in Applied Positive Psychology and an M.A in Industrial/Organisational Psychology. Her research led to Co-Founding Well Made Mama along with Sabrina Scalfari, a website devoted to helping women explore the way the science of human behaviour can help a modern mother adapt to her new role. Well Made Mama believes that child care begins with mother care, and that the health of the world begins with the health of its mothers.

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