Optimism and stress: an African-American college student perspective

Debora R. Baldwin

The purpose of this study was to examine the role of life event stress on African-American college students as a function of optimism. One hundred and six African-American college students attending a Historically Black College participated in this study. After obtaining informed consent, all participants were administered the questionnaire package (Student Stress Scale, Perceived Stress, Life Orientation Test, and demographics). As expected, individuals who scored high on measures of optimism reported significantly less perceived stress than their pessimistic counterparts. Underclassman reported more academic stress than upperclassman. These findings suggest that future studies should examine the role of optimism and other “buffer of stress” variables within the context of an African-American population.



Although the experience of stress has been shown to influence general well being, individual differences exist with regard to this phenomenon. Lazarus and Folkman (1984) have conceptualized life stress as a person-environment transaction. This model incorporates individual differences with respect to the perception of threat, desirability, personal resources, ability to cope, and response options (Dohrenwend and Dohrenwend, 1984). For example, racial and ethnic differences have been found among adolescents with regard to life stress exposure, the appraisal of negative impact of life stress, and coping resources (Prelow and Guarnaccia, 1997). Furthermore, these differences were not related to family socioeconomic status.

Within the last decade, researchers have begun to investigate a host of positive psychological factors (e.g., optimism, spirituality, social support) that have been shown to influence general well-being. In particular, optimism is linked to desirable outcomes such as good morale, achievement, improved health, and coping with adversity (e.g., Chang, 1996; Caver, Pozo, Harris, Noriega, Scheier, Robinson, Ketcham, Moffat, and Clark, 1993; Lin and Peterson, 1990). For example, Borawski, Kinney, and Kahana (1996) found that elderly adults who were more optimistic about their health were less likely to die within the 3-year study period. Moreover, Aspinwall and Taylor (1992) reported that optimism predicted adjustment to the first semester of college, independent of other variables such as locus of control and self-esteem.

According to Scheier and Carver (1987), dispositional optimism refers to the degree to which an individual holds positive expectancies for their future. More specifically, individuals who believe that the desired goal is attainable will overcome adversity to reach that goal. These individuals, in turn, expect a positive outcome from their effort and are properly called optimists. Pessimists are people who tend to hold more negative expectations, and their desired goals are viewed as unattainable. Thus, they will cease striving in the face of adversity. According to Tiger (1979), optimism is predicated on what an individual regards as desirable. Thus optimism, conceptualized as individual differences, may influence the cognitive appraisal of an event as stressful (Peterson, 2000).

To our knowledge, empirical studies examining the association between dispositional optimism and stress within a college population of African-American students are sparse. Most of the published research in this area has been based largely on Euro-American college samples (Graham, 1992). For example, Scheier and Carver (1992) conducted a study on adaptation to college life. They measured a number of outcome variables including optimism and perceived stress. These researchers found that optimists became significantly less stressed, depressed and lonely over time compared to their pessimistic counterparts.

It is well documented that Africian American students are more likely to drop out of college than their nonminority counterparts (e.g., Nettles, Thoeny, and Gosman, 1986; Wilson, 1994). According to Cross (1993), historically black colleges tend to have a highly disappointing student graduation rate. It has been suggested that minority students, in general, are more likely to express apprehension about the academic rigors of college compared with their nonminority counterparts (Eimers and Pike, 1997). Moreover, minority students tend to encounter common experiences that are different from those of nonminority status (Nora and Cabrera, 1996; Terenzini, Rendon, Upcraft, Millar, Allison, Gregg, and Jalomo, 1994). These experiences (e.g., financial problems, academic integration, parental encouragement) may interfere with the attainment of a desired goal–college degree.

Dispositional optimism may help students deal with stressful situations better by getting them to use their resources more effectively. The purpose of the present study was to document one aspect of academic integration, levels of stress, within an African-American population. Using the transactional model of stress, it was hypothesized that optimistic students would report less stress than their pessimistic counterparts.



One hundred and six self-identified African-American college students (90 females and 16 males) attending a historically Black college located in the southeastern part of the United States participated in the study. The mean age was 19 (SD [+ or -] 4.6). With regard to classification, 62% of the students were underclassman (freshman and sophmore) and 38% were upperclassman (junior and senior). The majority of the participants were single (97%), had no dependents (90%), and financed their education via grants or loans (96%). All participants were enrolled in liberal art courses and given informed consent prior to the administration of the surveys. The college’s institutional review board for the protection of human subjects approved this study.


Demographic information was obtained from each participant. This survey included questions regarding the participant’s age, sex, educational status, financial aid, dependents, and marital status.

Two measures of stress were used in this study. Academic stress was measured using the Student Stress Scale (Mullen and Costello, 1986). This is an adaptation of Holmes and Rahe’s Life Event Scale (1967). It was modified to apply to college students and has 31 items. Each respondent was asked to indicate the number of life events (e.g., death of close family member, trouble with parents, first semester in college, changes in living conditions) that they had experienced within the past year. Each event is weighted, and a score of 300 life change units (LCU) or more indicates a greater risk for developing health problems. The Perceived Stress Scale (Cohen, Kamarck, and Mermelstein, 1983) was used to measure the degree to which situations in life were viewed as stressful. This inventory contains 14 items which examined how often the respondent felt stressed, irritated, or in control during the past month (e.g., How often have you felt nervous and stressed? How often have you been able to control irritations in your life?). The responses were in fixed-response categories: never (0), almost never (1), sometimes (2), fairly often (3), and very often (4). The score was obtained via summing across all 14 items. In a previous study on African-American college students, we found the Cronbach’s alpha for this inventory to be .75 (Baldwin, Harris, and Chambliss, 1997). The reliability for this inventory in three samples has been reported to be .85 (Cohen et al., 1983).

In order to measure optimism, the Life Orientation Test (LOT) was used (Scheier and Carver, 1985). The LOT is an 8 item self-report scale (plus 4 fillers), which measure, generalized expectancies for positive and negative outcomes. Using a 5-point response scale ranging from 0 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree), respondents were asked to indicate their degree of agreement with the items (e.g., “in uncertain times, I usually expect the best.” or “I hardly ever expect things to go my way.”). Scores may range from 0 to 40, where higher scores indicate greater optimism. Scheier, Carver and Bridges (1994) reported a high internal consistency reliability of .82.


All study measures were administered during the 1999 academic year in groups of approximately 30 students. Participants were asked to complete the questionnaire package after obtaining informed consent. Data collection did not occur during holidays, midterm examination or final exam week. The package took approximately 20 minutes to complete, and the participants were given extra credit when they returned the questionnaire package. In order to maintain confidentiality, only participant numbers were placed on the instruments.


Item analyses were completed, and Cronbach’s alphas were generated for academic stress (.75), perceived stress (.75), and optimism (.80). To examine the relationship among variables, a correlational analysis (Pearson) was performed. To examine differences between groups (e.g., classification), the Student t-Test was used. For all analyses, the level of significance was set at 0.05. Table 1. presents the means and standard deviations for each of the instruments used in this study.

To test the hypothesis of individual differences with respect to the experience of stress as a function of optimism, a student t test was performed. The scores from the LOT were subjected to a median split. The data analysis yielded a significant difference between optimists and pessimist on perceived stress [+ or -] (104) = -4.84, p .05. Individuals who scored high on levels of optimism tended to report less global or perceived stress. Although there was not a significant difference between optimists and pessimist on academic stress, the results were in the hypothesized direction. Figure 1. illustrates the differences between the two personality types on the measure of perceived stress.

Table 2 shows the correlational scores for all variables. As expected, there was a significant positive association between academic stress and perceived stress (r = .20, p < .05). There was a significant negative association between perceived stress and reported optimism (r = -.61, p .05).

According to Holmes and Rahe (1967), a life event score greater than 300 LCU tends to be associated with an increased risk for developing health problems. In our study, we used a life event scale to measure academic stress. The mean score was 325.07 [+ or -] 151.40 in the present study. Although the reported stress experienced varied a great deal among the college students, the mean score is within the high risk category for developing potential health problems later in life.

Table 3 presents the means and standard deviations for all variables with regard to college classification. Freshman and sophomores were classified as underclassman (N = 66), while juniors and seniors made up the upperclassman group (N = 44). To determine differences between the two classifications on the dependent variables, student t-tests were performed. There was a significant difference between underclassman and upperclassman on the measure of academic stress [+ or -] (104) = 2.69, p < .01. Underclassman tended to report more academic stress than upperclassman. There were no significant differences found between the two groups on the other measures.


There is a considerable amount of data that support the role of optimism as a buffer for life stress. To acquire knowledge concerning the influence of optimism on the experience of stress in an under-studied population, African-American college students were examined. The present study offers empirical evidence that an individual’s perception of stress may be influenced by the personality construct of optimism.

As expected, we found a significant positive relationship between the two measures of stress. Moreover, optimism was negatively related to levels of perceived stress. Individuals who were more optimistic about their future tended to report less perceived or global stress than their pessimistic counterparts. However, optimism did not correlate significantly with reported levels of academic stress. This was an unexpected finding. Nonetheless, these findings suggest that both stress instruments share much in common and may be applicable to an understudied population.

Our finding is consistent with other studies that report dispositional optimism to moderate the experience of stress (Kiecolt-Glaser, Page, Marucha, MacCallum and Glaser, 1998; Scheier and Carver, 1992; Scheier, Weintraub, and Carver, 1986). Unlike Aspinwall and Taylor (1992), levels of optimism did not appear to significantly influence the African-American college student’s experience of academic stress in the present study. These researchers reported that optimism predicted adjustment to the first semester of college, independent of other variables such as self-esteem and desire for control.

At first glance, one might conclude that the high academic stress levels found in the present study may be attributed to racism or cultural mistrust. According to Walden (1994), African-American college students are more likely to believe that they are being “singled-out” compared with their Euro-American counterparts. More specifically, African-American students have been reported to experience greater social isolation and heightened discomfort with faculty and peers (Fleming, 1984; June, Curry, and Gear, 1990; Sedlacek, 1987). However, all of the participants in this study attended a Historically Black university. Black colleges have a long tradition of being sensitive to the needs of African-American students. A more plausible explanation may be attributed to the composition of our sample. In this study, 62% of our sample was classified as underclassman. Moreover, 71% of the underclassman identified themselves as freshman.

It is well known that adjusting to college life can be a trying experience. In the present study, we found a significant difference between underclassman and upperclassman on the measure of academic stress. This finding is consistent with previous studies that indicate higher stress levels for incoming students (Jay and D’Augelli, 1991; Smedley, Myers, and Harrell, 1993;). For example, Nwadiani and Ofoegbu (2001) measured perceived levels of academic stress in first year students enrolled in Nigerian universities. They found high levels of academic stress that was attributed to the admission process and student accommodation. Our findings suggest that the upperclassman were more stable with regard to college life (e.g.,academic achievement, financial situation, living conditions) and therefore less stressed.

Another plausible explanation for the high scores on the academic stress measure may be due to the items on the scale. The scale developed by Mullen and Costello (1986) includes items related to the death of a loved one and/or close friend. These two nonacademic items are weighted heavier than the others items on the scale (e.g., first semester in college, failure of an important course, serious argument with an instructor). In the present study, 44% of our sample experienced the death of a family member or close friend within a 12 month period. Unfortunately, it was not possible to measure the impact of such a loss on academic performance. However, Hendricks, Smith, Caplow, and Donaldson (1996) reported that parents and significant others play a vital role in the decision of minority students to continue in college.

Although optimism was not significantly related to academic stress, the relationship was in the hypothesized direction. Moreover, individuals who viewed their future in a positive light tended to report less perceived or global stress than their pessimistic counterparts.

As of 1996, the number of African-American college students who stayed on track for a bachelor’s degree was 56% (US Department of Education, 2000). Earning a college degree is known to produce greater gains in occupational prestige (Lin and Vogt, 1996). The findings from the present study may serve as a platform for examining the noncognitive variable of optimism, as a factor in African-American college student retention. Optimism can be cultivated via cognitive-behavioral therapy (Gillham, Reivich, Jaycox, and Seligman, 1995) where you try to change behavior by changing how an individual thinks. A key intervention used in changing how pessimistic thoughts lead to negative outcomes is to refute evidence supporting such negative thoughts (Beck, 1991). More importantly, optimistic individuals are more likely to use problem-focus coping methods than pessimistic for reducing environmental stressors (Scheier, Carver and Bridges, 2000). Thus intervention programs designed to increase dispositional optimism in African-American college students maybe beneficial towards the completion of a college degree.

The results obtained from this present study were based upon a relatively small, predominately female and underclassman sample. Future studies should include a larger sample that examines possible gender differences as well as measuring academic performance from a longitudinal perspective.


Mean and Standard Deviations of Stress and Optimism Scores

Among African-American College Students (N = 106)

Variable Mean SD

Student Stress 325.07 151.00

Perceived Stress 27.50 7.51

Life Orientation Test 21.05 5.88


Correlation Matrix Among Variables (N = 106)

Variable SSS PSS LOT

SSS .200 * -.102

PSS — — .610 **

LOT — — —

Note: Abbreviations are as follows: SS (Student Stress Scale);

PSS (Perceived Stress Scale); LOT (Life Orientation Test);

p < 0.05 * and p < 0.10 **


Mean and Standard Deviations for all Variables as a Function of

College Classification

Variable Underclassman (N = 66) Upperclassman (N = 40)

Mean SD Mean SD

SSS ** 354.66 149.82 276.25 142.74

PSS 27.04 7.08 28.27 8.25

LOT 20.71 5.42 21.62 6.61

Note: Abbreviations are as follows: SSS (Student Stress Scale);

PSS (Perceived Stress Scale); LOT (Life Orientation Test);

p < .01 **


We would like to thank Dr. Lowell Gaertner for his comments on the preparation of this manuscript.


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Department of Psychology

University of Tennessee


Division of Education and Psychological Studies,

University of Tennessee


Department of Psychology

University of Tennessee

COPYRIGHT 2003 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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