Psychologists define optimism as the expectation that the future will be socially desirable, good and pleasurable.
And, it transpires, thinking that way is very good for our wellbeing.
Studies have found that people who are optimistic report higher levels of subjective wellbeing and happiness, show higher levels of positive emotion, have better overall health and are less prone to disease, and are less likely to suffer from clinical depression.
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But we don’t want to encourage our students to be blindly optimistic and end up experiencing distress when their plans inevitably come crashing down.
Teaching 'realistic' optimism
What we’re aiming for is realistic optimism; hoping for the best but having a back-up plan for the worst.
What largely determines our levels of optimism or pessimism is our explanatory style – these are the conversations we have with ourselves when things happen to and around us.
If an optimist experiences a negative setback like a bad exam result, they generally believe it will be temporary (“This won’t last forever”), local (“I messed up this exam but the others will be better”) and impersonal (“That was a hard exam, I’m not a failure”).
Conversely, a pessimist will often view the setback as being all their fault, them messing up everything in their life and things always being that way.
Psychologist Martin Seligman says that the significant adults in our lives massively affect our explanatory styles.
We will often imitate our parents’ explanatory styles but they are also shaped by the adult feedback and criticism we receive, including from teachers.
So, let’s have a look at three ways to nudge our students to look on the brighter side of life:
Show your students what being realistically optimistic looks like, especially when things aren’t going to plan.
If things go wrong in class, or you find yourself dealing with challenging behaviour, explain it to pupils in a way that shows it’s temporary (“This is a blip and we can turn this around soon enough”), local (“This isn’t ideal but lots of other things are going well”) and impersonal (“That was a bad behaviour choice but you are not a bad person”).
Keep it positive
Research from relationship expert John Gottman shows that, on average, successful relationships have a ratio of five positive comments for every perceived negative comment. When speaking and interacting with your class, you must keep the dialogue mostly positive.
This is one of the hardest things to do when you are tired and dealing with challenging behaviour or poor academic performance.
But your students need to know deep down that you believe in them, that they can be successful, improve their learning and turn any negative situation around. If you lose hope or faith in them, you’ll be fighting a losing battle.
Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet that, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” He wasn’t wrong. The way we perceive situations is, arguably, much more important than the situation itself.
A psychological tool called reframing can be useful here; it is when we consciously choose to view something from a different standpoint to change how we feel and respond to it.
So, if a student is finding a lesson tricky and says they can’t do it, remind them that when we take part in challenging work we’re most likely to experience flow, give them examples of previous times they’ve been successful in your lessons to motivate them, and let them know you’re there to help them if they need it.
And when it comes to taking part in scarier activities like exams, competitions or solo performances, get them to say “I am excited” beforehand, as a type of reframing known as anxiety reappraisal has been shown to boost performance.
Developing optimism in our students may seem frivolous to some, but with our young people facing an uncertain future and issues like climate change and Brexit looming large, it could be an essential tool to not only aid their learning and mental health, but also to help them face the future with a bit more confidence.