Improve Your Well-Being By Increasing Optimism And Self-Esteem

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated March 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

An optimistic attitude is strongly associated with a higher quality of life. Similarly, self-worth can also play a role in your mental health and happiness. 

High self-worth and a positive outlook come with numerous mental and physical health benefits. While self-worth and optimism are not the same, they are closely related concepts. Understanding the interplay between optimism and self-worth may help you achieve greater happiness and satisfaction in your life.

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What is optimism?

Optimism has regularly been studied within social psychology, but a more recent field, positive psychology, takes a deeper dive into the individual factors of optimism. An optimist is someone who regularly anticipates positive outcomes. They believe favorable situations are more likely to happen to them than negative ones. 

Conversely, pessimists tend to think that outcomes will be mostly negative and that they have little control over the circumstances in their lives. 

Optimism and pessimism exist along a spectrum, and a person may not be consistently optimistic or pessimistic. Scientists attempt to distinguish the degree of a person's optimism through assessments like the life orientation test

Current research into optimism suggests that maintaining an optimistic attitude includes what you pay attention to, how you attribute events in your life, and how much control you feel over your life.

Focusing on the positive

Optimists tend to notice the positives around them that confirm and reinforce their attitude. Your overall outlook will likely improve if you notice positive aspects of your life. Focusing on the positive is commonly expressed through the "glass half full" metaphor.

Imagine a glass of water sitting on the table. An optimist will likely see the benefit of having at least half of the glass full and will view the glass as a positive factor. On the other hand, a pessimist is likely to focus on the fact that half of the water is missing from the glass and will count the glass as a negative factor. 

Even though both viewed the same half-full glass, the optimist and pessimist reached radically different conclusions about the positivity of the event.

Attributional style

Your attributions are how you frame success and failure in your mind. Optimistic people tend to attribute success to factors within their control. For example, an optimist studying for an exam at school likely believes that they can influence their grade by studying harder, that extra studying almost always leads to an improved grade, and that studying harder offers similar benefits no matter the subject.

On the other hand, a pessimist is more likely to believe that no amount of studying will improve their grade. They may not see any benefit to increased effort and will likely achieve a poorer grade than they otherwise would have. Attributional styles structure how you judge whether you will succeed or fail, and an optimistic attitude is significantly more likely to lead to a positive outcome.

Locus of control

Feeling optimistic and positive usually requires you to feel like you have some control over your circumstances. Psychologists refer to this as a person's locus of control (LOC). The LOC is the degree to which you feel control over situations or circumstances. 

Your LOC can be either internal or external. Those with an external LOC often see the cause of problems—or the solution to them—as outside of their control. Conversely, those with an internal LOC feel like their efforts will lead to meaningful change.

Optimists vary their LOC depending on the situation. They often feel an internal LOC for positive events and an external LOC for negative ones. Optimists feel like their attempts to solve a problem are likely to be effective and that they can produce positive outcomes through effort alone. Pessimists typically feel their control is limited and likely do not believe their efforts will lead to meaningful change.


Benefits of an optimistic outlook

Whether a person has a positive or negative affect can have a significant impact on their life. Scientific research has linked optimism to improvements in psychological well-being and a reduction in underlying negative mental health challenges, like trait anxiety.

In addition to anxiety, an optimistic attitude may help you defend against depression and other mental health conditions. Optimism is also strongly associated with higher levels of goal attainment, meaning you are more likely to complete your goals if you have an optimistic attitude versus a pessimistic one.

Optimists are more likely to take proactive steps to solve problems rather than address them reactively. A head-on approach to problem-solving is associated with less stress regarding the problem. Resiliency, or your ability to recover from complex challenges and move forward, may also increase with an optimistic attitude.

An optimistic outlook can also benefit your physical well-being. It is associated with lower mortality for several medical conditions, especially those related to the heart. For those diagnosed with other conditions, such as brain injuries or cancer, optimism is associated with lower levels of depression, better adherence to health regimens, and more proactive management strategies. Increasing optimism is an important part of health psychology, a branch of psychology concerned with helping people manage health conditions.  

Optimism and self-esteem

Self-esteem refers to the internal feelings and assumptions you hold about yourself. People with high self-worth often think positively about themselves. If you see yourself as a person of value, acknowledge your positive qualities, and generally treat yourself with kindness, you likely have positive self-worth.

Self-esteem and optimism both contribute heavily to confidence. Confidence refers to how you feel about your skills and abilities. Confidence is not a general feeling about yourself like self-worth; it applies to specific skills. For example, you may be very confident in your ability to ride a bicycle and not at all confident in your ability to tame a lion.

Building confidence requires practice, and failure is often a necessary part of the process. High self-worth often lets you believe in yourself enough to continue pursuing your goal, while an optimistic attitude can help you see that your goals are realistic and within your reach. The connection between optimism and self-worth may help you create generalized outcome expectancies that are positive, often referred to as dispositional optimism.

Over time, your belief in your own abilities will likely increase, leading to higher self-efficacy. Clinical psychology recognizes the importance of the optimism-self-esteem connection, and it is incorporated in several psychological interventions. 

Building an optimistic outlook

Building optimism and reducing your negative affect is strongly associated with an increase in goal attainment and overall happiness. One of the most effective ways to improve your overall well-being is to understand your explanatory style. Explanatory style is very closely related to the concept of attributions discussed above. They can be either optimistic or pessimistic and are comprised of three domains, known as the "three Ps":

  • Personalization refers to a person's locus of control. It can be either internal or external.
  • Permanence can be either stable or unstable. An outcome is stable if a person believes it is unlikely to change and unstable if they believe it will change.
  • Pervasiveness can be either global or specific. An outcome is global if a person believes that generally applicable factors caused the outcome. An outcome is specific if a person believes it was caused by factors unique to the context or setting.

You may have noticed that optimists won't necessarily have the same three Ps for every situation. For example, an optimist might assign stable permanence to positive events and unstable permanence to negative events. 

The reverse is often true for a pessimist. Pessimists are also likely to think the factors that cause negative events are globally pervasive, meaning they come from unchangeable, universal factors like "bad luck."

If your explanatory style is aligned with a pessimistic thought process, you may challenge it using the ABC method.

First, identify the ABCs:

  • Activating event: this is an event that has occurred. It can be positive or negative. Describe it objectively and without qualifying it. For example, "I received a C on my report card."
  • Belief: this refers to your underlying assumptions about the activating event. For example, you might say, "A C is a very poor grade," or "I thought I was going to fail; a C is pretty good."
  • Consequence: this refers to what your belief is likely to lead to. For example, you might study harder if you recognize room for improvement.

If you identify problematic processes in your ABCs, such as any belief or consequence that would prevent you from trying to improve your exam grade, challenge them in your mind. Ask yourself why you couldn't reasonably increase your grade.

Then, try replacing your pessimistic thought with a new philosophy, emotion, or behavior. It may not feel natural at first, but developing optimism usually begins with conscious, deliberate effort.

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
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Can online therapy help?

Online therapy may be a viable option if you need help developing a more optimistic outlook and improving your self-worth. A therapist may be able to bridge the gaps between the challenges associated with gaining more control and satisfaction with your life. 

Online therapists use the same evidence-based techniques as traditional therapists, and visiting a therapist online may remove some common barriers associated with therapy. You don't have to travel to an office, and you can often select from a wider range of therapists than are available near you. Although therapy is delivered online, evidence indicates it is just as effective as in-person therapy.


Optimism and self-worth can be important parts of improving subjective well-being. An optimistic outlook can help you believe in yourself and make it easier to believe that good things come with effort. 

Broadly speaking, optimism requires a sense of control over your life, a willingness to see positivity, and a drive to assign positive attributions. It is possible to become more optimistic through time and effort, and doing so often begins by consciously challenging pessimism and negativity.

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