Parents are always telling kids they need to be optimistic, but there hasn't been much evidence that optimism really does them any good. Looking on the bright side may even hurt teenagers, say some experts, because it can make them downplay the risks posed by smoking and drug abuse. That's in stark contrast to older adults, who are generally healthier and happier the more optimistic they are.
The researchers followed 5,634 Australian 12- and 13-year-olds for 18 months, asking them about their psychological state, substance abuse, and antisocial behavior. The more optimistic the students were, the less likely they were to become depressed. But there was just a modest effect on other common teen problems. For instance, optimistic teenagers were only slightly less likely to be involved in criminal activity or heavy substance abuse.
What makes optimism work? An optimist believes the good things that happen in life will keep happening, and that they happen because she or he made them happen. Optimists also figure that bad things happen occasionally, and by chance, not because of one's own mistakes; and they believe those bad things are unlikely to happen again.
But for glass-half-empty types, there's good news: Optimism can be learned and it can help parents and teens deal more effectively with everyday adversity, says Martin Seligman, a psychologist who leads the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. And learning to be more optimistic is as easy as ABCDE, says Seligman. (To see where you fall on the optimism/pessimism scale, take his optimism test.) He describes our usual response to life's bumps and bruises as a three-step process, or ABC:
To avoid that bad consequence and increase optimism, Seligman recommends adding in two more steps, D and E:
Our world is full of news that could turn us all into pessimists, and teenagers are experts at ruminating over the world's injustices. Optimism, whether born or learned, may make the travails of teenagerhood a bit less painful for us all.