Published: Jan. 30, 2019

A man stands on a balcony.In hard times, our personal outlook can be the vehicle to a better place. This concept of learned optimism relies on the idea that we can teach ourselves to overcome negative thoughts. Psychology research shows that college students who participated in learned optimism programs experience less depression and anxiety, and improved health and wellness. Here’s how they can get started.

Basics of optimism

The first steps toward developing a sense of learned optimism are to start viewing bad events within the following guidelines:

  • A setback or failure is only temporary.
  • It is specific to only one situation and not our whole lives.
  • It isn’t personal - setbacks are largely caused by circumstances and can be overcome.

For example, if your student receives a bad grade, remind them that this is only a temporary condition limited to that one assignment. They have the power to bounce back from it by asking for help with the material, improving their study skills and dedicating more time to classwork going forward, and they have your support to make this happen.

Help your student see that a bad grade doesn’t define them as a person and it doesn’t set the tone for the entire semester. The same rules apply to other difficult situations.

Overcoming pessimism

Learned optimism is about practicing a new way of thinking. In the meantime, if something negative happens, there are other techniques we can use and encourage in others to help us along.

Positive psychologists recommend healthy distraction as an immediate help. Instead of lying in bed consumed by worries about classes, work or relationships, suggest your student pick up their favorite Harry Potter book as a distraction until they can deal with their concerns properly.

Distancing and identifying alternatives can also be helpful when it comes to dealing with negative thoughts. There are often multiple circumstances that contribute to a setback, and once your student can see these objectively, they are more willing to make a plan to move forward. If you hear them in a tailspin of negative thoughts, have them take a step back. Ask them if they are treating themselves as they would treat their best friend in this situation.  

We can also interrupt negative thoughts with evidence about the reality of the situation. While your student may worry about a “worst case scenario,” things rarely play out that way. Even if the “worst case” feels possible, help your student rationally think through a variety of options for getting help, whether that’s by talking to a professor, seeing a counselor or finding new coping mechanisms.

Leading an optimistic life

Our thinking patterns aren’t the only changes we can implement. Positive psychology research has shown that being mindful can improve mood and health. This means taking time each day to connect with the present moment.

Support your student in identifying mindful moments they can have throughout the day, like clearing their head on the bus to campus or savoring fun moments with friends.

Expressing gratitude is also linked to improvements in mood and health. Some researchers recommend jotting down three things we’re grateful for at the start or end of every day, like being surrounded by the mountains, having a warm cup of coffee or hearing a good joke. Encourage your student to identify and express what they are grateful for in their lives to foster positive thinking patterns.