In adults, optimism has been shown to improve people’s ability to rise above adversity. Optimists may also be more likely to take on lifestyles that promote health. If the effects of optimism begin before adulthood, it could have a profound impact throughout a person’s lifetime. In a study recently published in Pediatrics, Dr. George Patton and colleagues looked at the effects of optimism on mental health and health risk behaviours in younger teens.
The researchers used assessments to evaluate the presence of depression symptoms, anxiety symptoms, frequency of antisocial behaviour, and use of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis in 5634 Grade 8 teenagers. The assessments also measured optimistic thinking style, interpersonal competence (ability to begin relationships, provide emotional support to others, assert influence, and resolve conflict), and coping style. The assessments were first done around the beginning of Grade 8. They were repeated near the end of Grade 8 and again in Grade 9 or 10.
Depression and anxiety more common in girls
At the beginning of the study, depression rates were 29% in boys and 39% in girls; high anxiety rates were 11% in boys and 19% in girls; and antisocial behaviour rates were 45% of boys and 29% of girls. These rates remained constant throughout the study. Substance use rates at the beginning of the study were 21% in boys and 17% in girls; these rates increased over time to 45% and 41%, respectively, by the end of the study.
For either gender, about a quarter fell into each of the following categories: very high optimism, high optimism, low optimism, or very low optimism. While these rates remained constant for boys throughout the study, the optimism rates for girls decreased somewhat over time.
Optimistic thinking leads to better mental health
Throughout the study, the more optimistic teens tended to have lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance use, and antisocial behaviour. For both boys and girls, optimistic thinking style was a strongly protective factor against depression and anxiety; it was moderately protective against antisocial behaviour. However, while optimism was protective against substance use in girls, it had no effect in boys.
The study concluded that interventions geared toward teen mental health and behaviours should take into consideration ways to promote an optimistic thinking style. These need to be combined with programs that address other aspects of thinking and emotional style.
For information about positive psychology, see "Psychology pursues happiness."