Optimism and psychological and physiological well-being following a natural disaster

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

First Committee Member

Gail Ironson, Committee Chair


This study examined the effects of optimism on psychological and physiological well being at four time points after Hurricane Andrew. Subjects were studied immediately post hurricane (IPH), at 1 year follow-up (1YF), at a 2 year follow-up (2YF), and at a 4 year follow-up (4YF). Self-report measures included the Life Orientation Test (LOT), situational optimism (created for this study), the Global Severity Index from the SCL90-R, maladaptive and adaptive coping strategies derived from the COPE, negative health behaviors (alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco use), somatic complaints and number of illness days during the past month, a modified version of the Loss of Resources questionnaire, and a question regarding threat to life during the hurricane. The physiological variable consisted of neuroendocrine (norepinephrine, epinephrine, cortisol) and immune (NKCC, NK#, WBC, CD4#, CD4%, CD8#, CD8%) measures.It was hypothesized that dispositional optimism would be related to psychological and physiological functioning following Hurricane Andrew, with the pessimism factor from dispositional optimism accounting for the significant relationships. Situational optimism was hypothesized to have stronger relationships with the physiological variables as compared to the other optimism measures, and psychological distress, coping strategies, and negative health behaviors were hypothesized to mediate these relationships.Dispositional optimism was related cross-sectionally to psychological distress at all four time points, to maladaptive coping at IPH, 1YF, and 2YF, to adaptive coping at 1YF and 2YF, and to somatic symptom count at IPH and 1YF. Dispositional optimism was not generally related to the negative health behaviors, number of illness days, or the endocrine or immune measures. Prospectively, dispositional optimism only predicted psychological distress at 1YF. The pessimism factor did account for the majority of the relationships between dispositional optimism and outcome measures. Pessimism also had a significant negative relationship with CD8 number and percentage at IPH.Situational optimism was similar to dispositional optimism in its relation to the outcome variables, except that it was negatively related to both CD4 and CD8 number at 2YF. Mediational analyses indicated that psychological distress was as important or more important than coping in mediating the relationship between optimism and outcome measures. These findings add to the research literature by demonstrating that dispositional optimism, the pessimism factor, and situational optimism each add unique understanding to the relationship between optimism and psychological and physiological functioning. Overall, it appears that optimism is most strongly related to well being in the context of a stressful event, with its most significant relationship being with psychological distress.


Psychology, Psychobiology; Psychology, Clinical; Psychology, Personality

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