floating colourful umbrellas

What is optimism?

Being optimistic is looking on the bright side of life or ‘seeing the glass as half full’. An optimistic outlook is about expecting things to be well and to go well for you. It is also about believing that you can help bring about positive change in your life and in the world.

As a comparison, being pessimistic is seeing things in a negative light or ‘seeing the glass as half empty’. It means expecting things not to be well or to go well for you. 

Optimism and pessimism are simply different habits of thinking that we learn when we are young. 

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, but an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

Winston Churchill

You may have a tendency to be more optimistic or more pessimistic - but these ways of thinking are not fixed. Many people tend to over-exaggerate negative aspects of themselves, leading to pessimistic thinking. By being more aware of your thoughts and by attempting to be more realistic with yourself about why negative things happened to you, you can become more optimistic. 

You can help children and young people become more optimistic by the way you act yourself and by the way you encourage and interact with them. Optimism is a skill that children and young people can learn and the more optimism is practised, the more of a habit it becomes.

Why is optimism important?

Research shows that people who have a generally optimistic outlook will persevere when in difficulty, are high achievers, are highly motivated, have positive moods and have a greater sense of control over their lives. They also tend to have good relationships and good health. In other words, having an optimistic outlook helps you to flourish.

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.

Helen Keller

People who have a generally pessimistic outlook, on the other hand, are more likely to become depressed or anxious, achieve less than their potential and have a higher risk of health problems. They may have a tendency to give up when things get difficult and to feel they can’t cope. Sometimes it will take them quite a long time to recover from a setback.

Did you know?

People are naturally drawn towards those who think optimistically. This is because optimistic people are good at inspiring and motivating others and they give others a sense of hope for the future.

Sara, H. (2009). Optimistic carers and children: Pathways to confidence and wellbeing. Research in Practice series, Early Childhood Australia Inc, 16(3).

Optimism v Pessimism

Children and young people who are generally optimistic or pessimistic have different ways of explaining the events of their lives to themselves - they talk to themselves in different ways: 

Optimistic view

  • When things go wrong, they see it as temporary - they will brush it off as unimportant and will tell themselves it was due to something specific and won’t have a long-lasting effect, for example:

    "I didn’t pass the exam because I didn’t study hard enough for that one - I’ll be able to pass it next time."
  • The thing that’s going wrong is recognised as only being about one part of their life - it doesn’t affect other areas, for example:

    "I wish I wasn’t being bullied, but my schoolwork is good and I have some good friends in my swimming club."
  • When something goes well for them, this just adds more evidence to their permanent bright view of the world and their abilities, for example:

    "I passed that exam because I always try my best and therefore I tend to do well in exams."

Pessimistic view 

  • When things go wrong, this adds more evidence to their generally negative view of the world. They tend to think that the situation will last forever, for example:

    "I'm never going to be able to do well in exams."
  • They also over-generalise, and see the negative event as affecting all aspects of life, for example:

    "I hate that I’m being bullied. Everything’s going wrong in my life."
  • When something goes right for them, they tend to think it’s just a fluke or to do with someone else rather than them, for example:

    "I passed that exam, so it must have been really easy."

Realistic optimism 

It is important to note that optimism needs to be realistic. People who are not realistically optimistic may not have realistic expectations about the possibility of bad things happening and may be caught unprepared when they do. For example, it would not be safe for you to jump into deep water and just be optimistic that you could swim, if you’d never actually learned to swim! 

If we are realistically optimistic, we make a realistic assessment of risks and our abilities, and we take responsibility for our own actions. Optimistic people know that life is not always rosy. But they know they can cope with difficult events and that they will pass. They make plans to help them cope and ask others for help.

How to help children and young people develop optimism

  • Practice thinking optimistically yourself. What children and young people see and hear really influences the way they think. To help you think more optimistically:
    • Look on the bright side whenever possible. For example, when it’s raining, don’t talk about what you can’t do. Instead think about something interesting you can do indoors.
    • When you achieve success, don’t play it down. Let yourself have the credit for a job well done. This will help you believe in yourself more, which leads to optimistic thinking. 
    • When things don’t go so well, don’t dwell on it or beat yourself up about it. Keep things in perspective, persevere and look forward to future successes.
  • Help children and young people to notice and focus on what’s good in their lives and what’s going well for them. This is not to deny that sometimes things will go badly for them. They can learn from these things too. But help them not to get too bogged down in thinking about what’s going badly. 
  • Explain to children and young people that how they feel about something is not just caused by what happened, but by the way they think about what happened. Talk to them about the thoughts they have when things go wrong for them. Help them to see that these thoughts are just thoughts and may not be true. These thoughts can have a big effect on their mood and behaviour. So, if they think in a negative way about something bad that happens, they won’t feel good. If they try to see things in a more positive light, they will feel better and may be able to cope better or come up with a solution more quickly. 
  • Help children and young people to be more accurate about the way they explain bad events to themselves. For example, if a young person fails a test and says they are a ‘total failure’, you could help them to remember success in the past or in other aspects of their life. Yes, they have failed this specific test, but that doesn’t mean they are a total failure. You could also suggest alternative reasons why they didn’t pass this test, for example, they may not have spent enough time on their homework or they may not have paid enough attention in class.
  • When something has gone wrong for a child or young person (e.g. their football team has lost a match), listen to them first and try to understand how they feel. Acknowledge their feelings - it’s ok to feel bad. Then try to reduce their pessimistic thoughts by asking questions such as:
    • "What was one thing that the team did well?" 
    • "What did you do really well in the game?" 
    • "What was one thing that your team didn’t do well today that you could work on? 
    • "What could you do to improve?"
  • Be alert for pessimistic talk, for example:
    • "I’m never going to be able to swim." 
    • "Nobody likes me." 
    • "I’m hopeless at maths." 
  • Help them to be more accurate or realistic, for example:
    • "Maybe if you practice more, you could swim better." 
    • "Perhaps some people in your class don’t understand you, but you had a good time with your friend at the park last week." 
    • "Sometimes you need to try harder at maths, but you keep improving all the time."
  • When a child or young person puts themself down (e.g. "I can’t do anything right!") ask them what they would say to their best friend if their friend was thinking this way. For example, they may say something like this to their friend: "Oh come on, you can do some things right - remember how well you danced in the school show and how many good friends you have..." This will help them to see how hard they are being on themselves and will show them how to be gentle and kind towards themselves. When they practise treating themselves like this, they will start to focus on their strengths, not their weaknesses.


Here's an activity to help children and young people develop optimistic thinking:

Happy Shields

Optimism is a positive attitude that helps protect our minds, bodies and relationships. Making Happy Shields can help children and young people identify their happy thoughts, encouraging memories and inspiring hopes.

What you need:

  • Large sheets of thin card 
  • Pencils 
  • Scissors 
  • Colouring materials 
  • Ruler 
  • Collage scraps 
  • Glue 

What you do:

  • First, make your own happy shield as an example, so the children or young people can see what to do.
  • You can either download a shield to print or make a shield like this:
    • Give everyone a large sheet of thin card. 
    • Fold the card in half both ways to divide the card into four rectangles. 
    • Open the card out and refold the two long sides together. 
    • From the fold at the bottom of the card, draw a gentle curve around to the side of the card, to make the bottom edge of the shield.
    • Keeping the card folded, cut along this curve to make a shield with four sections.
    • Open the shield out and then fold the top edge down about 4cm so there is another section along the top edge of the shield.
  • In the top border, write your name.
  • In the top two sections, draw or write about some things that happened to you, or some things different people have said to you, that make you feel happy and strong whenever you think about them. These might be things like a time when you did something that made you feel proud, or when something you were worried about turned out really well. Or maybe a teacher noticed that were good at something, or a parent told you that you were great and one day you’d do something amazing.
  • In the bottom two sections, draw or write about your dreams, or some of the things that you hope will happen in the future, or some of the things you’re looking forward to. Choose things that make you feel happy and strong when you think about them. 
  • Display your shield in a special place and use it to encourage you when you need to feel strong and happy. 

Some things to talk about together:

  • How do you feel inside when you think about the good things you’re looking forward to? 
  • Who can help you to feel better during the times when you think there isn’t anything good to look forward to? 
  • What plans can you make together with your friends, your class or your family so that you can have some lovely things to look forward to? 
  • What are the things you like to think about when you need to feel strong? 

Other ideas:

  • Play the song ‘Favourite Things’ from ‘The Sound of Music’ and talk about the special things Maria likes to think about when she feel scared or worried. Adapt the song and put your own favourite things into the words. 
  • Make happy bunting. Give each person a long piece of narrow string or ribbon, at least 2m long. Make a diamond template out of paper, so that it can be folded in half to form a slightly elongated triangular flag. Cut several diamonds for each person out of different coloured and patterned paper. Fold the diamonds neatly over the ribbon. Use glue stick to stick the two sides of the folded diamond together so that they can hang down to make bunting flags. Then let everyone decorate their own string of bunting flags with words and pictures that help them to feel happy and strong, or words and pictures that describe their hopes and dreams.