Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Optimism and Teen Girls' Health

A new study of optimism has had a lot of media buzz lately, in a society somewhat obsessed with measuring happiness. The study raises questions about how optimism affects health in adolescents.

The study of 5,634 tweens and teens in Australia, published recently in Pediatrics, found that the more optimistic the participants were, the less likely they were to develop symptoms of depression. This effect was especially apparent among girls ("A Prospective Study of the Effects of Optimism on Adolescent Health Risks").

The study participants were surveyed to find out whether their levels of optimism were very low, low, high, or very high. The gender differences in how optimism affected them were striking. "Compared with girls with very low levels of optimism," the authors wrote, "boys with the same level of optimism were approximately half as likely to be depressed." 

Adolescent girls in the western world, who are more likely than adolescent boys to become depressed, are often expected to be cheerful and helpful. Are glum girls frowned upon where glum boys are tolerated? I worry that teen girls might feel pressured to deny or suppress occasional sadness, making those feelings more difficult to overcome.

Optimism can be difficult to measure, because people are often encouraged to act and think optimistically, whether or not they actually feel optimistic, so that they will be happier. But happiness is also a result of personality, history, life circumstances, and many other variables.

It's good to try to see the positive side of even difficult circumstances; an optimistic viewpoint is helpful in life. But it shouldn't be required all the time.

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