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The Benefits of Optimism - A Message from Deputy Principal - Students

My final week of term has not gone according to plan (my intended plan) which is not an uncommon scenario for many people. What has been interesting to note are the responses I get when talking with others. People have been overwhelmingly positive in their approach with comments that start with “At least…”, “You’re lucky that …”, “It’s fortunate that …” etc. These individuals are voicing what they perceive as the inherent positive(s) in the situation.

There are a number of definitions for ‘optimism’ but the online Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as:

an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome

According to this definition, the people I have mentioned above are displaying this quality.

We have also come across those in our life that are more inclined to see the glass as ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’. So is optimism something that can be learned or is it an inherent trait we are born with and if so, are there any advantages?

Seligman in his book Learned Optimism (2000) argues that if we change the way we perceive the causes of challenges and adverse events in our life as well as recognising and challenging our negative self-talk, optimism will eventually form part of our attitude. He is not saying that we shouldn’t feel sad or frustrated by things that happen in our life, but instead encourages us to view most negative events as external and temporary.

Catherine Moore, psychologist, in her article Learned Optimism: Is Martin Seligman’s Glass Half Full? on states that:

Learned optimism is very much a positive psychology concept; it’s the opposite of learned helplessness: a phenomenon whereby individuals believe they are incapable of changing their circumstances after repeatedly experiencing a stressful event (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; Seligman & Garber, 1980; Maier & Seligman, 2016).

So what are the benefits of taking this approach? Francie Healy, Headmaster of a co-educational, independent school in the UK lists the following research-backed findings:

  1. Optimists feel healthier and are healthier A Harvard School of Public Health study found people who tend to look on the bright side have fewer heart problems, such as cardiovascular disease.

  2. Optimists live longer If we expect that we’ll live into old age, we increase our chances of actually doing so. An analysis of the health and hope of nearly 100,000 women by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that over an eight-year-period, optimists were less likely to die from all causes than cynics.

  3. Optimists are better at fighting illness Researchers studied the relationship between optimism and immune response in first-year law students throughout the school year. When a student was more optimistic they fought off infection more effectively than during the times when they were less hopeful.

  4. Optimists experience less stress Normally, optimists do not worry about little things. That was the finding in a study at Quebec’s Concordia University. Not only did optimists produce less cortisol (the stress hormone) during times of stress, they also didn’t experience as much perceived stress during stressful times.

  5. Optimists get more job offers and promotions Duke University followed a group of MBA graduates as they entered the workforce. Those who believed good things would happen to them had an easier time finding jobs than those who had a less hopeful outlook. The same University study found that optimists in the workforce often have a reason to be happy on the job. They tend to earn higher starting salaries than pessimists and they also are promoted more frequently.

  6. Optimists adapt better A study in Australia showed that students who were more optimistic about their transition to university life experienced less stress, anxiety, and uncertainty and had a more successful first year overall.

  7. Optimists Make Better Athletes Optimists don’t necessarily have more muscle mass or greater athletic ability than pessimists, but what they do have is hope. In a study co-authored by Seligman, a group of swimmers was instructed to swim their hardest then were told a false time – one that added several seconds. The optimists used this negative feedback to fuel an even faster time on their next swim; the pessimists performed more poorly than before.

Setbacks, disappointments and things not going to plan are situations that will always occur. However, if our girls can view the majority of these events as an opportunity to learn, adapt, change and/or grow then according to Seligman and other positive psychology theorists, they are laying the groundwork for a happier, healthier and more successful life.

Happy holidays!

Nadine Kelly

Deputy Principal - Students


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