How Does Optimism Help the Incarcerated Reintegrate into Society?

Exploring the Role of Optimism among Offenders in Jail and Reintegrating into the Community

  • Sociology
  • Psychology

Principal Investigators

Jeffrey Stuewig
Associate Research Professor
George Mason University
Research Team Members
June Tangney
George Mason University


All people have character strengths and all face adversity over the course of their lives. Why is it, however, that some are able to succeed, thrive, and overcome, while others do not? How is it that individuals who have been incarcerated and removed from society can effectively return, overcome barriers, and become positive productive members of the community? What role might optimism play in this transition? In general, optimism -the expectation that good, rather than bad things will happen- is related to a variety of outcomes including; mental and physical health, perseverance in the face of adversity, well-being, self-control, and adaptive coping. All characteristics beneficial for individuals who face the challenges of incarceration and subsequent transition back into the community at-large. The majority of this research, however, has been done in the general community; little information is available regarding the role of optimism in high-risk, multi-need, underserved populations, such as jail inmates.

Millions of individuals pass through the criminal justice system each year at a substantial cost to society. As 95% of them are eventually released back into the community, it is important to identify points to intervene or psychological characteristics to target – ones that may help offenders lead productive and fulfilling lives upon release. Given the positive outcomes associated with high optimism, fostering it may be beneficial in the inmate population both as they cope with incarceration and as they near re-entry into the community. It is also important to understand how optimism relates to long term success among those who face numerous barriers. Individuals transitioning to the community run the risk of being stigmatized, barred from certain jobs, and unable to access financial loans due to their criminal record. A tendency toward optimism may help individuals persevere and thrive. Investigating how optimism leads to positive adaptive functioning in the community and helps individuals live a crime free life may increase the benefits and reduce the costs for the individuals, their families, and society as a whole.

Additionally, a deeper understanding of how optimism may change over time, especially when life circumstances change considerably gives us a better idea of when it would be best to intervene. Examining changes in optimism not only across the period of incarceration but also as individuals transition back into the community as well as what predicts this change would help us better understand the dynamics of optimism. For example, attending religious services may provide a buffer against a decline in optimism while incarcerated; a belief in a higher power may allow individuals to resist focusing on the negative and continue to believe things will work out for the best. In sum, we propose to examine correlates of optimism, determine how optimism helps individuals flourish, and investigate how optimism develops and changes over life-transitions in an understudied segment of society. We believe that drawing on and investigating the strengths and virtues these individuals have may help us not only formulate effective interventions in the future, but help illuminate our basic understanding of optimism.