Why Optimism Matters for Student Success – Now and After Graduation

Why Optimism Matters for Student Success - Now and After Graduation

As a student you may be worried about the future. There is a lot of daunting news available now about the value of a degree, challenges in the job market, and of course, economic conditions. If you pay attention to the news reports you can develop a sense of learned helplessness about events beyond your control. And yet, one thing you do have direct control over is your outlook. Now more than ever, you need optimism or belief in your capabilities, regardless of the circumstances around you. What you believe about yourself ultimately determines how successful you are.

College Students Today

Are college students still optimistic? Recently published reports about optimism among college students suggest that even during an economically challenging time, optimism is still possible.

A survey of first-year students at U.S. colleges was conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), the research arm of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Over 200,000 students nationwide participated in this survey and the results found record low levels of emotional health, with a feeling of being overwhelmed prior to starting college. Yet, these students also reported higher ratings of their academic ability and drive to achieve success. John H. Pryor, lead author of the survey, believes that while this drive to succeed may be contributing to their increased feelings of stress, overall these first-year college students did have a sense of optimism about their future.

Another survey was conducted by the College Board, a nonprofit association that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement tests, titled One Year Out. This was a national survey of 1,500 high school graduates from 2010 and the results found that “despite uncertain times, graduates are surprisingly optimistic, with about 66% convinced that people their age will find jobs and careers.” In addition, a majority of these graduates believe that “earning a college degree is worth the time and money.”

This research indicates that students start a degree program with the belief that it will lead to a specific result or improvement in their life or career. That’s an effective starting point. In order to maintain that belief while going to college, you must also learn to develop an ongoing optimistic attitude, regardless of present circumstances.

A Need for Psychological Capital
When times are good, it can be easy to feel good and continue to put in your best effort. But if there are challenges or news reports that cause questions and fears, your attitude may wane. That’s when you need psychological capital, which consists of “efficacy (self-confidence), resilience (a belief that you can bounce back from setbacks), hope (a belief you can achieve your goals) and optimism (expecting good things to happen in the future).” This is more than a feel-good attitude where you say, “don’t worry, be happy.” It is a carefully cultivated state of mind that “reflects your capacity to overcome obstacles and push yourself to pursue your ambitions.” It is a strategy that will help you to perform your best in class, maintain productive working relationships with others, and recognize your talents and strengths.

B. Cade Massey, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, believes that “optimism also allows individuals to think more flexibly and creatively,” and “when you're engaged in an optimistic mindset, your belief is that things will work out, and you just need to figure out how.” This state of mind allows you to develop innovative answers, whereas pessimism can cause you to get stuck in a mental rut. Developing your psychological capital will assist you now as a student and later in your career. It is a skill that inventors and business leaders alike have relied upon as a key to success.

Thomas Astebro, a University of Toronto management professor, conducted a study in 2007 and “found that inventors are more overconfident and optimistic than the general population,” and more than “half of the inventors studied continued to spend time on their projects even after receiving advice to cease their effort.” This was certainly true for Thomas Edison, who was reported to have made 10,000 attempts before inventing the light bulb.

A more recent example can be found through the life of Steve Jobs. Marc Kuchner, author of Marketing for Scientists: How to Shine in Tough Times, noted that “what made Jobs so great at selling his ideas was his optimism and enthusiasm.” How important is enthusiasm? Kuchner indicates that “negative expressions leave a more lasting impression on our psyche than positive ones.” Your outlook will influence not only how you perceive the world around you and resulting actions you take, it will influence what others believe or think about you as well.

How You Can Develop Optimism

Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is a thought leader in the field of positive psychology. His book Learned Optimism added a new dimension to the self-improvement industry.   
Seligman’s work teaches three main differences between pessimists and optimists, and it is based upon how they address challenges or setbacks:
1. Permanence: Someone with an optimistic perspective will view negative experiences or challenges as a temporary occurrence.
2. Pervasiveness: Someone who is optimistic will view failure as one aspect of life, whereas a pessimistic person will consider their entire life to be a failure.
3. Personalization: Optimistic people look for external causes of negative events and pessimistic people tend to blame themselves.  
Stanford University created a self-assessment questionnaire that will offer insight into your attitude (optimistic or pessimistic) and consists of 48 questions. The results will provide scores in all three areas of permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. Mind Tools offers strategies for the development of an optimistic attitude and includes avoiding negative environments, celebrating your strengths, taking care of your emotional well-being, managing or ignoring what you cannot change, learning to reframe your perspective, and adapting your language and outlook.

An optimistic outlook is directly related to your attitude about the circumstances of your life. Your academic goals are likely related to other long-term goals such as your career. If you are going sustain your motivation and effort while working on your degree, you are going to need more than hard work. You’ll also need a positive outlook about your capabilities. While you may not be able to control external events, optimism will allow you to maintain hope and persist while finding opportunities, answers, solutions, and ultimately, success.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

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