The Benefits of Optimism Are Real


Analyzing their writing, Pennebaker noticed that the people who benefited most from the exercise were trying to derive meaning from the trauma. They were probing into the causes and consequences of the adversity and, as a result, eventually grew wiser about it. A year later, their medical records showed that the meaning-makers went to the doctor and hospital fewer times than people in the control condition, who wrote about a non-traumatic event. People who used the exercise to vent, by contrast, received no health benefits. Interestingly, when Pennebaker had other research subjects express their emotions through song or dance, the health benefits did not appear. There was something unique and special about the stories people told themselves. Those stories helped people find a silver lining in their adversity.


Barbara Fredrickson, a psychological researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has looked more closely at the relationship between being positive and resilience. Her research shows how important one is for the other.

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For starters, having a positive mood makes people more resilient physically. In one study, research subjects were outfitted with a device that measured their heart activity. After their baseline heart activity was recorded, they were presented with a stressful task: Each was asked to quickly prepare and deliver a speech on why he or she is a good friend. They were told that the speech would be videotaped and evaluated.

Heart rates rapidly increased. Arteries constricted. Blood pressure shot up.

Then, participants were shown a short video clip that either evoked negative emotions (like sadness), positive emotions (like happiness), or a neutral condition of no emotions. The participants were also told that if they were shown a video clip “by chance” that they were off the hook: They did not have to give the speech after all. That meant that their anxiety would start to subside as the video clips started.

Here was the interesting finding: The heart activity of the participants who viewed the positive clips returned to normal much quicker than their peers who were shown the negative or neutral clips. Positive emotions can, the researchers concluded, undo the effects of a stressful negative experience. The researchers found that the most resilient people were also more positive in day-to-day life.

It turns out that resilient people are good at transforming negative feelings into positive ones. For instance, one of the major findings of Fredrickson’s studies was that resilient people took a different attitude toward the speech task than non-resilient people. They viewed the task as a challenge and opportunity for growth rather than as a threat. In other words, they found the silver lining.

With that in mind, the researchers wondered if they could inject some positivity into the non-resilient people to make them more resilient. They primed both types of people to approach the task either positive or negatively. The researchers told some people to see the task as a threat and they told others to see it as a challenge. What they found is good news for resilient and non-resilient people alike.

Resilient people who saw the task as a challenge did fine, as predicted. So did, interestingly, resilient people who were told to view the task as a threat. Resilient people, no matter how they approached the task, had the same cardiovascular recovery rate.

The people who benefitted from the priming were non-resilient people. Those who were told to approach the task as an opportunity rather than a threat suddenly started looking like high resilient people in their cardiovascular measures. They bounced back quicker than they otherwise would have.

Resilient people are good at bouncing back because they are emotionally complex. In each of Fredrickson’s studies, resilient people experience the same level of frustration and anxiety as the less resilient participants. Their physiological and emotional spikes were equally high. This is important. It reveals that resilient people are not Pollyannas, deluding themselves with positivity. They just let go of the negativity, worry less, and shift their attention to the positive more quickly.

Resilient people also respond to adversity by appealing to a wider range of emotions. In another study, for instance, participants were asked to write short essays about the most important problem that they were facing in their lives. While resilient people reported the same amount of anxiety as less resilient people in the essays, they also revealed more happiness, interest, and eagerness toward the problem. For resilient people, high levels of positive emotions exist side-by-side with negative emotions. Think of how Pi responds to his seemingly hopeless situation aboard the boat: “I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar.”

When your mind starts soaring, you notice more and more positive things. This unleashes an upward spiral of positive emotions that opens people up to new ways of thinking and seeing the world-to new ways forward. This is yet another reason why positive people are resilient. They see opportunities that negative people don’t. Negativity, for adaptive reasons, puts you in defense mode, narrows your field of vision, and shuts you off to new possibilities since they’re seen as risks.

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This calls to mind one of the best scenes from Silver Linings Playbook, in which a bad situation nearly consumes Pat. He is at a diner with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), when he hears “Ma Cherie Amour” playing in his head-the song that was playing when he found his estranged wife naked in the shower with another man-and has a traumatic flashback.

Tiffany helps him work past the episode: “You gonna go your whole life scared of that song? It’s just a song. Don’t make it a monster… There’s no song playing. There’s no song. Breathe, count backwards from ten. That’s it.” He recovers and their interaction sets the stage for the rest of the movie.

Like Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook is about how we can tame our inner demons with hope and a positive outlook on life. By finding meaning and love in terrible circumstances, as Pi and Pat do, they overcome their suffering and, in the process, reveal how uplifting silver linings can be.