The role of optimism in social network development, coping, and psychological adjustment during a life transition

Ian Brissette
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Michael F. Scheier
Carnegie Mellon University
Charles S. Carver
University of Miami

Published in ?Journal of Personality and Social Psychology?, 82(1), 102-111, 2002

This study examined the extent to which the association between greater optimism and better adjustment to stressful life events is affected by social support and coping strategies.  89 students in their first year of college completed a set of questionnaires at the beginning of a semester and then again at the end of the semester, which was approximately 12-16 weeks after the initial assessment.  Participants consisted of 46 females and 43 males aged between 17 and 20 years.  The researchers assessed friendship network size, depression, perceived stress, and perceived social support at the beginning and end of the semester.  Optimism and self-esteem were measured at the beginning only.  And coping was assessed at the follow-up only.

All students reported greater levels of stress (but not depression) at the end of the semester compared to when they started.  The researchers suggest that these findings support the idea that the first semester of college involves intense social networking and that this period can be particularly stressful for students.  However, optimists reported smaller increases in stress and depression compared with pessimists.  

The results further indicated that optimistic individuals report greater perceptions of social support compared with their less optimistic peers.  Although greater optimism was also associated with having larger friendship networks after the first two weeks, it did not predict increases in social network size over the course of the entire semester.  The researchers suggested that optimists may be able to maintain these original networks from the beginning and the changes in social relationships may reflect higher quality friendships rather than gradual increases in the number of friendships over time.  Moreover, the study indicated that increased social support may play an important role in explaining why optimists appear to adjust more effectively to stressful life events.

In relation to coping mechanisms, the study found that optimists were more likely to display positive coping behaviour, such as positive reinterpretation and growth, planning, and active coping whereas pessimists tended to focus on more negative coping strategies, such as denial and behavioural disengagement.    

Overall, the findings from this study emphasise the importance of how social support and coping strategies are inextricably linked to greater optimism and better adjustment to stressful life events.