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How to Cultivate Optimism

January 06, 2020 by John Andrew Williams

Cultivating optimism is an essential cornerstone in the coaching profession.

A coaching tool called, “Future Self” is often used to create such a perspective. It guides a client to craft a clear picture of who they are going to be at some distant point in the future, anywhere from 9 to 20 years and includes the positive perspectives, knowledge, and experiences played out over the designated time period. It provides an opportunity to learn from the amassed wisdom of those years. Optimism plays a role in the concepts we create about ourselves in the future. The ability to embrace an optimistic view of one’s future has been shown to increase positive emotions, improve overall well-being and enhance resilience to challenging events (Peterson, 2000). Although optimism has been revealed to have significant positive effects, how to cultivate an optimistic perspective has drawn less research attention.

A study by Peters, Flink, Boersma, & Linton (2010) identified effective ways to cultivate optimism. The study examined the role positive future thinking has on increasing levels of optimism within its participants. Through a single brief writing and mental imagery exercise, the researchers successfully increased the experimental groups expectancies for a positive future, compared to a control group. Professional coaches have been encouraging optimistic tendencies with their clients for decades, but few studies, until now, have revealed scientific evidence to support these practices. With this body of evidence, coaches can continue to encourage optimism development with their clients. 


Sheldon & & Lyubormirky (2006)’s optimism intervention was the foundation of the current study. In this intervention, participants wrote on four consecutive days for 20 minutes about a future where they imagine themselves in the best possible light, conditions and circumstances. This research served as a framework for Peters et. al. (2010) to conduct their own optimism manipulation, adding a mental imagery component and reducing the length of the manipulation to one single intervention. Both interventions revealed a correlation between optimism and positive affect (PA), well-being and physical health.  Positive & negative affect (PA & NA) served as key measurements. Also considered one’s emotions and expressions, these markers are used to understand how present emotions influence the participants to act and make decisions. Emotions such as; joy, engagement & pride are examples of PA. Whereas, expressions such as; fear, anger & sadness are illustrations of NA.82 students from Örebro University in Sweden participants. The 31 men and 51 women who partook in the study were assigned to two conditions. The first group of 44 students focused positive future thinking and embraced writing and visualizing their best possible self (BPS). The second group of 38 were instructed to focus on a typical day in their life. 


With a 20-minute exercise, you can improve your mood and future expectations. Results of the study determined with a 15-minute writing exercise followed by a five-minute mental imagery visualization, participants who focused on positive future thinking significantly impacted their PA and future expectancies. The experimental manipulation to increase optimistic future thinking was compared to a control manipulation, where participants wrote about and imagined a typical day. These findings are significant in that the BPS manipulation did not only impact PA, but also future expectancies. Thus, revealing that this intervention can be utilized to induce optimism in individuals.

Concurrent with previous research, mental imagery of a positive outcome works. Carver & Scheier (2001) first revealed that mental imagery of a positive future scenario has a similar effect on the brain as actual behavior. Thus, based on this evidence, consistent mental imagery practice of BPS can lead to increased levels of confidence, excitement for one’s future and preparation for future success.

Research by Carver & Scheier (2005) supports the findings that goal accomplishment increases confidence. According to their expectancy-value model of motivation, progress towards a set goal determines PA and confidence of a preferred outcome. The greater progress towards an outlined goal, the more PA a person will experience and a greater optimistic outcome is assessed. Providing additional support that positive future thinking nurtures optimistic tendencies.


The 82 participants were divided into two conditions. An experimental (BPS) and control (typical day) condition. Both groups followed the same procedure: participants were instructed to think for one minute about what they wanted to write, then wrote for 15 minutes, followed by a five minute mental imagery exercise on the story they wrote.  Dispositional optimism was measured using the Life Orientation Test (LOT: Scheier & Carver, 1985). Described as the expectancy that good things will happen, rather than bad things, dispositional optimism was measured an eight item survey. Items were measured using a five-point scale, from strongly disagree to strongly agree. An example item is, “I’m always optimistic about my future.” The LOT was taken before and after manipulation.

Using MacKinnon et al., (1999)’s Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS), PA & NA were assessed. The assessment measured five PA items (e.g., joy) and five NA items (e.g., rage) that were scored on a 5-point scale. Utilizing the “this present moment” as the reference point, the PANAS was administered prior to and in-completion of the optimism manipulation. The Subjective Probability Test (SPT; MacLeod, 1996) was used to measure positive and future expectancies, . The test consists of 10 statements referring to a positive future outcome (e.g., ‘people will admire you’) and 20 statements referring to negative future outcomes (i.e., ‘you will not achieve what you thought you would’). On a 7-point scale, participants were asked to determine the likelihood of each outcome being reality. Tests were administered before and after manipulation.

Results of this study outlined a practical way to increase a person’s optimism utilizing visualizing one’s future self. In as little as 20 minutes, an individual can positively influence their emotions, confidence and vision for future self. This evidence supports the powerful effectiveness of the  “Future Self” coaching exercise often utilized within the coaching community. Through guided imagery and structured writing exercises, an individual can truly live and experience a future version of themselves.

The concepts we create about our future selves are incredibly optimistic. We are hard-wired to think about our future in a positive light. When we allow ourselves to embrace this positive version of self, we are free to become who we want to become. We are flooded with positive emotions and encouraged to relentlessly pursue our goals, despite the obstacles that might obstruct our path. This is the power of optimistic thinking.


Carver, C.S. & Scheier, M.F. (2001). Optimism, pessimism and self-regulation. In E.C. Chang (Ed.), Optimism and pessimism: Implications for theory, research, and practice (pp. 31–52). Washington, DC: APA.Carver,  C.S., & Scheier,  M.F. (2005). Optimism. In C.R. Snyder & S.J.E. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 231–243). New York: Oxford University Press.Mackinnon, A., Jorm, A.F., Christensen, H., Korten, A.E., Jacomb, P.A., & Rodgers, B. (1999). A short form of the Positive and Negative affect Schedule: Evaluation of factorial validity and invariance across demographic variables in a community sample. Personality and Individual Differences, 27, 405–416. MacLeod, A.K. (1996). Affect, emotional disorder, and future-directed thinking. Cognition & Emotion, 10, 69–86. Peters, M. L., Flink, I. K., Boersma, K. & Linton, S. J. (2010). Manipulating optimism: Can imagining a best possible self be used to increase positive future expectations? The Journal of Positive Psychology. 5(3), 204 – 211.Peterson, Christopher (2000). The future of optimism. American Psychologist, 55(1), 44 – 55.Sheldon, K.M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 73–82. Scheier, M.F., & Carver, C.S. (1985). Optimism, coping, and health: Assessment and implications of generalized outcome expectancies. Health Psychology, 4, 219–247.

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