By Melissa Schorr
NEW YORK, Jan 28 (Reuters Health) – Optimists tend to develop better coping skills and a more supportive social network than those with a darker outlook, which may shelter them from stress and depression, researchers report.
“The role that our personality plays in generating responses from others can go a long ways towards our own mental well-being,” lead author Dr. Ian Brissette, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, told Reuters Health.
Previous research has shown that those who have a sunny outlook about the future tend to have better mental health than those who are pessimistic. One possible reason, the researchers theorize, is that optimists are more likely to develop strong ties with others, which has been shown to be one factor in being better able to handle stress.
“Because optimistic people may be more skilled interpersonally and are better to be around, they may develop these social networks more easily,” Brissette noted.
The researchers conducted a survey of 89 college undergraduate students near the beginning of the semester, when they had yet to develop a network of friends, and again at the semester’s conclusion. The investigators measured the students’ self-reported optimism as well as their levels of perceived stress and depressed mood.
As expected, the researchers found that optimists immediately developed a larger group of friends and maintained a superior state of mental health throughout the semester, compared with their pessimistic peers.
“Optimists showed better adjustment to college,” Brissette said. “They showed less stress and depression during the first week, and smaller increases in stress and depression over the course of the semester.”
Brissette said the study found two potential reasons for the optimists’ lower levels of stress: strong friendships and superior coping skills.
For example, optimists were more likely to report feeling that they had someone who would help them move or loan them a car, the researchers note in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“Optimists were developing more supportive networks than people who were more pessimistic,” Brissette pointed out.
Optimists were no more likely than pessimists to develop an even larger group of friends over time, but their friendships seemed to be of a deeper quality. “There was no greater increase in the number of friendships,” Brissette said, “but you could argue they were potentially stronger.”
Optimists also seem to function better than pessimists because they are more likely to rely on an effective coping skill called positive reinterpretation and growth, rather than ineffective coping methods such as denial or disengagement.
“(Positive reinterpretation) is looking at a bad situation and looking for the silver lining, or interpreting the setback as a challenge,” Brissette explained. “Optimists cope differently than pessimists.”
While these findings may sound bleak for the mental health of those without a Pollyanna outlook, Brissette suggested that these pessimists might benefit by incorporating optimists’ techniques into their own lives.
“You’re not going to necessarily change a pessimist into an optimist,” he noted. “But if you could instruct in coping strategies or with developing of the interpersonal network, you could help students to better adjust.”
SOURCE: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2002;82:102-111.