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.
But researchers in Australia say that optimism may help protect teenagers against depression. That news, reported in the journal Pediatrics, could matter to many teens, since 10 to 15 percent of adolescents have symptoms of depression at any given time. Depression is a huge risk factor for suicide and increases the risk of substance abuse, trouble in school and relationships, and physical illness.
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:
- Adversity. Recognizing a problem.
- Belief. What you believe about the problem. For example, the guy who cut you off in traffic is a jerk and an idiot.
- Consequences. You get mad at that jerk, and it ruins your day.
To avoid that bad consequence and increase optimism, Seligman recommends adding in two more steps, D and E:
- Disputation. Question your belief in what happened. What else could have caused the problem? Does your belief in what happened do you any good? Apply that to the jerk-in-traffic example, and it's easy to see how you can start rewriting the scenario to a happier outcome.
- Energization. This one sounds a bit woo-woo, but it just means figuring out how you can improve the situation, and jumping on it. For road rage, it could be as simple as laughing over the craziness of rush-hour traffic. In other situations, it could be asking others to help with a challenging project, seeking forgiveness from someone you've wronged, or distracting yourself from brooding over the bad things in life.
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.