Optimistic Families: Are They Born or Do They Happen?

Optimism: a collection of thoughts and behaviors

Think about the optimistic people you know. They don’t just think positively, they do positive things. Optimists believe that good things will happen in their future and they persistently work toward goals that will help them achieve happiness. What, then, can parents do to increase the odds that they will raise optimistic children?

Nature and Nurture

Psychologists have only recently begun to document the power of positive emotions on physical and mental health. Studies have shown that, in most cases, optimists are healthier than pessimists are. Genetics account for about 25 percent of our optimism, but our environment and learned behavior determine the rest. Therefore, because the amount of optimism we can naturally produce is pre-determined, our upbringing is critical to the outcome.

Luckily, most people are optimistic. We tend to view the world better than it actually is, says neuroscientist Tali Sharot. This “optimism bias” keeps us from truly understanding the suffering the future inevitably holds and helps us envision greater opportunities for ourselves.

Research shows that, in general, tense babies tend to grow up to be inhibited children and adults, while relaxed babies tend to become sociable children and adults. Yet, infancy has only a partial influence on one’s overall level of optimism. Each person’s optimism fluctuates over time and many other factors come into play throughout a child’s life.

Parental relationships are the second most influential factor in determining a child’s ultimate temperament. Parental relationships are most influential during the early-middle childhood years, but by young adulthood, the parents’ influence wanes. The “critical trait,” according to psychologist Suzanne Segerstrom, is the level of acceptance and caring parents provide throughout a child’s upbringing. Having a “warm, close” parental relationship gives children the self-confidence to build healthy social bonds and support their optimism in the future.

Parents who demonstrate optimism increase the odds that their offspring will be optimistic. Children who see their parents rewarded for hard work tend to be more optimistic. Let your children see you working to attain a long-term goal, perhaps gaining a promotion through higher education, or volunteering to make a difference in your community. Continually taking action to reach one’s goals is a signature trait of optimists.

More Evidence

  • Optimists look upward for inspiration; pessimists look downward for consolation.
  • They are goal-oriented, highly conscientious.
  • Optimists experience positive moods and a higher sense of well-being
  • Optimists expect good things, but are resilient when faced with obstacles. They learn from mistakes and move on; pessimists tend to self-blame and allow negative experiences to spread to other areas of their lives.

Pump Up the Positive

What can parents do to emphasize the positive? Remember, optimists think and do positive things. More specifically:

  • Set goals that come from your family’s values and enhance self-esteem. Pick activities that build competence, connect with others and are freely chosen vs. coerced.
  • Make it personal; the child should “own” the goal. Keep the big picture in mind: the activity should serve a higher purpose.
  • Review the goals frequently; write down what you and your child learn from each experience, good and bad. 
  • Help your child see progress: write down three actions that will help them achieve the goal. Evaluate weekly and adjust as needed. 
  • Teach your children to manage stress and they’ll stay optimistic when adversity strikes. Deep breathing exercises are effective and easy to learn. (Find some examples at http://HealthLand.Time.com/2011/05/31/study-25-of-happiness-depends-on-stress-management/
  • Kill, or at least limit, the TV and other screens. Engage in self-fulfilling activities.

While all this may sound easy, in reality, it’s not. Family counselor Barbara Mason-Palmer of Gladstone, recommends engaging with your child to determine what they would like to do. Teach them they always have options to try something different if their first choice doesn’t work out. (This applies to activities, education or career choices.) She encourages families to spend quality time together developing emotional connections rather than worrying about being involved in multiple activities.


Kathy Stump lives in Parkville with her family.

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