Just the right amount of optimism is good for our young people.

Dear parents, I was at Church on Sunday, listening to one of my Pastors speaking on a topic called: ‘the road to contentment’. Reference was made to a text from the Bible’s New Testament, Philippians 4:11 – 13.

‘… I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him [God] who gives me strength.’

It reminded me again how the Bible helps us be our best self by encouraging contentment. I couldn’t but help think about our children here at SCBC. We approach education intentionally, to help them experience optimal wellbeing; functioning well and feeling good.

An article I came across last year studying at Melbourne University is called: ‘Think Positive? Examining the Impact of Optimism on Academic Achievement in Early Adolescence’.  I’m curiously interested in what habits of mind can help our young people experience contentment. The research was by two academics (Julia Tetzner and Michael Beker), from the German Institute for International Educational Research, and Libniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education. I thought you’d be interested. The study looked at the relationship between optimism and academic achievement in early adolescence. Over 6000 German adolescents (male & female) participated in the study during a period of 5 months.  

Optimism is hope that there will be a favourable outcome in our life. Of interest, optimistic people experience lower levels of distress, have better interpersonal relationships and physical health, and report better occupational outcomes and wellbeing. Optimism is associated with better adaptation to changing situations such as changing schools, or the death (or serious injury) of a loved one. Optimists direct their attention to more positive initiatives and ideas, and less attention to negative activities. They show more persistence and engagement with high-priority tasks, will take actions to minimise risks, and actively attempt to change situations in the face of difficulties. They do this using problem-focused and engagement coping strategies.

The researchers observe optimism may help adolescents enhance their academic achievement, despite challenges. Optimistic adolescents may show higher academic engagement and greater persistence in reaching their academic goals. Thus, they may invest more effort in school-related tasks and actively take steps to close achievement gaps after failures (e.g., taking private lessons). Optimistic adolescents may also experience more positive self-esteem development. They may focus their attention more on positive information, such as positive feedback from peers or their personal strengths and pay less attention to information that may possibly threaten their self-esteem’ (p. 284).   

Following is a very brief summary of the research results that examined the impact of optimism on academic achievement in early adolescence. Only mid-level optimism appears to be necessary to promote adolescent success at school. The ‘Goldilocks Principle’ is helpful in communicating the benefits of just the right amount of optimism.

Encouraging your children to have positive expectations through a realistic lens may help them do their best work at school. Too little, and it is less likely they will thrive. Too much, and there is a plateau reached, after which there are no greater benefits. Economists call it the ‘Law of Diminishing Returns’.

When I reflect on the Christian Faith, it is about having a relationship with God’s Son, Jesus. Jesus life on earth is a story of hope. To love God with all your life is arguably to experience the fullness of love. In my opinion, when we experience authentic love, we experience peace that creates contentment.  

Christianity is a message of hope. When we educate your children, it is within a paradigm of hope that instinctively encourages authentic optimism. The empirical research I’ve shared with you suggests just the right amount of optimism is good for our young people. It can help them to do their best work. If they do their best work, they are arguably more likely to experience feeling content. If they are content, they are less likely to feel anxious.

Des Mitchell