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Optimism can be trained

Being happy in unhappy times

Photo by Karolina Grabowska/Pexels
How do you stay optimistic amidst wars, climate change, and personal struggles? A growth mindset and emotion crafting can help you, say optimism researchers Charlotte Vrijen and Bertus Jeronimus. ‘People can learn to find and preserve positive states.’
7 May om 16:32 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 14 May 2024
om 14:40 uur.
May 7 at 16:32 PM.
Last modified on May 14, 2024
at 14:40 PM.
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Door Mai Tenhunen

7 May om 16:32 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 14 May 2024
om 14:40 uur.
Avatar photo

By Mai Tenhunen

May 7 at 16:32 PM.
Last modified on May 14, 2024
at 14:40 PM.
Avatar photo

Mai Tenhunen

‘Was I ever supposed to feel optimistic?’ 

Sally Dukes, a 26-year-old master student of international relations, has a lot going for her, but still, she doesn’t feel like there is a lot of reason for optimism. Not in between the various wars, climate change, career struggles and everything else. ‘At this point, I have kind of stopped caring – if the world is going to blow up, there is not much I can do about it’, she says.

Sally is one of many students who struggle to stay positive about the state of the world. ‘There is definitely an atmosphere of panic and negativity amongst the students at the university’, agrees Finnish student of media studies Iiris Mäkelä. 

One in five young people between 16 and 30 in the Netherlands are worried about the climate crisis, research bureau Ipsos concluded last year. They are stressed, struggle with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and don’t sleep well at night. And then there’s the fear of war, as well as the mental pressure to perform all the time.

Positive outcomes

That, of course, is a worrying situation. Not only is being optimistic a pleasant feeling, it’s also good for you. ‘Optimism is related to a lot of positive outcomes’, says Charlotte Vrijen, who researches optimism. ‘People who are optimistic tend to be happier, do somewhat better in social and academic life, use more effective problem solving strategies and seem to be better able to regulate their emotions.’

Optimistic people tend to do better in social and academic life

We could all do with a little more optimism, in short. But what do we know about optimism? Can a pessimistic person learn to be a little more happy-go-lucky?

The answer: yes and no. Whether you’re generally a ray of sunshine or a gloomy storm cloud is partly due to factors out of your control, such as genes. ‘From twin studies we know that 25 to 30 percent of optimism is hereditary’, Vrijen explains. There may not be a specific ‘optimism gene’, but it is likely that various genes are at play, which all have a very small effect. 


How these genes then go on to express themselves depends on the environment you grew up in. Did your parents have an optimistic growth mindset, believing that skills can be developed? Or do they have a fixed mindset and believe that skills are stable and cannot be changed? 

‘A growth mindset increases your opportunities and reduces your stress levels, because it makes you think that you can change things’, says Vrijen. 

The country you have been born into is another factor you can change very little about. Things like good education and healthcare systems and government support matter, explains professor of clinical and developmental psychology Bertus Jeronimus, as does social trust, which is a kind of faith in people. 

‘In countries where there is high social trust, such as Scandinavian societies where people are given a lot of freedom to be themselves and they trust their government, people tend to be happier’, Jeronimus says. ‘Factors like these account for 10 to 15 percent of the variation in happiness.’

Emotion crafting

However, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing you can do to train your optimism. That growth mindset? Even if you haven’t learned it from your parents, you can work on it yourself and literally try to change your mind. 

That’s what Iiris did. ‘I used to think that I just suck at maths and there is nothing I can do about that’, she says. But then she started to set tangible goals, and reminded herself that there is no ‘bad at maths’ gene. ‘And I started getting better.’ 

A growth mindset makes you think that you can change things

Optimism is strongly connected to emotions. ‘People who know their emotions better and have a handle on them are happier’, Jeronimus explains. ‘They are a window to your needs; through them you can understand what is important to you.’

So if you want to become more optimistic, you need to be able to recognise your emotions. ‘Having a wide vocabulary of emotions is important. It is a toolbox to be able to think more nuanced about your emotions, which is important for functional emotion regulation’, Jeronimus says. 

This is something that grows with age, but it’s also a skill that can be developed, he says. ‘People can learn to find and preserve positive states. This is called emotion crafting. In essence, it is about identifying something you like and that makes you happy, and making it a bigger part of your life.’

It is especially important to find hobbies that bring you positive emotions. ‘Half of Dutch adults don’t have hobbies. That’s a shame, because those really allow you to dive into something positive and it gives you a coping tool for periods of mental health problems.’ 


Iiris also recognises the importance of emotional regulation. ‘I was still such a child when I started university. I stressed out easily and was frustrated with myself so quickly. But now I can think more logically, rather than jump into an emotional storm when something happens.’ 

We think of happiness as this bubbly, excited feeling, but that is fleeting

Writing in streams of consciousness has helped her with that. ‘It has increased my self-awareness and helped me get some distance to my immediate thoughts.’ 

Sally is crafting her emotions by going outside as much as she can and appreciating her new home country. ‘In the US, everything is built around cars, so here I am happy to just walk to places. It has improved my perspective on the world.’

It also helps her to remember that things could be much worse. ‘A lot of people read the news, watch tv and think that this is such a violent time, when actually things are a lot less violent than for most of history. Even with everything going on, it is incredibly peaceful’, she says. 

Not always positive

Iiris, too, has realised that terrible, stressful things have always happened and will always happen, and that her feeling bad about it won’t change anything. ‘Having an optimistic take on things will just get you further.’

Still, optimism does not mean that you always have to be positive about everything, Vrijen says. ‘People sometimes think they fail if they’re not happy. But emotions have a clear function. If something terrible happens and you can’t feel sadness, that is very dysfunctional.’

It might also be wise to rethink what it means, adds Jeronimus. ‘When we think of happiness, we tend to think of this bubbly, excited feeling. But that is very fleeting. Contentment and peace are a more mature and durable form.’