2011. Vol.2, No.6, 584-589
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.26090
Exploring Coping Effectiveness and Optimism among
Tuija Muhonen1, Eva Torkelson2
1Centre for Work Life Studies, Malmö University, Malmö, Sweden;
2Department of Psychology, Lund University, Lund, Sweden.
Received May 5th, 2011; revised July 15th, 2011; accepted August 19th, 2011.
The aim of the study was to examine the relationship between coping, optimism, psychological and physical
well-being. The effectiveness of the different coping strategies and the role of optimism were investigated by
analyzing how they predicted psychological and physical well-being. Altogether 136 municipal employees par-
ticipated in a questionnaire study. The results showed that the most adaptive or effective coping strategy con-
cerning psychological and physical well-being was acceptance, which can be classified as engagement coping.
Ineffective strategies regarding psychological well-being included disengagement coping strategies such as sub-
stance use, behavioral disengagement and self-blame. An ineffective strategy regarding physiological well-being
was denial, which can be classified as a disengagement strategy. Optimism correlated significantly with both
psychological and physical well-being. However, when all the variables in the model were included in the re-
gression analysis, optimism explained additional variance in physical well-being but not in psychological
Keywords: Coping, Optimism, Well-Being
Coping is considered as one of the most central concepts in
stress research (Semmer & Meier, 2009) and there is a growing
body of studies investigating how people cope with stressful
situations at work (cf. Carver, 1997; Tamres, Janicki & Hel-
geson, 2002). Coping can be defined as cognitive and behave-
ioral efforts to manage different demands that tax or exceed a
person’s resources (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). There are sev-
eral ways to categorize different coping strategies that people
employ when facing stress (cf. Skinner, Edge, Altman & Sher-
wood, 2003). One of the most common categorizations is to
classify coping strategies as problem-focused or emotion-fo-
cused coping (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980). The problem-fo-
cused coping strategies aim to modify or eliminate the source of
stress, whereas emotion-focused strategies focus on adjusting
emotional responses elicited by the stressful situation.
Although the distinction between emotion-focused and prob-
lem-focused strategies is widely acknowledged, it has been
criticized as being conceptually too broad (Carver, Scheier &
Weintraub, 1989; Skinner et al., 2003) and confounding espe-
cially when it comes to emotion-focused coping, which in-
cludes divergent strategies (Farley, Galves, Dickinson & Perez,
2005). Further, Carver and Connor-Smith (2010) point out that
problem-focused and emotion-focused coping can be interre-
lated and that it is therefore more useful to consider them as
complementary rather than distinct and independent categories.
Some researchers distinguish instead between active coping,
cognitive/emotional management, avoidant strategies and sup-
port seeking (Farley et al., 2005; Welbourne, Eggerth, Hartley,
Andrew & Sanchez, 2007).
Carver and Connor-Smith (2010) make a distinction between
engagement coping and disengagement coping. Engagement
coping aims to handle the stressor or emotions involved, whereas
disengagement coping attempts to escape the stressor or emo-
tions associated with it. Engagement coping then includes both
problem-focused and emotion-focused strategies, e.g. support
seeking, acceptance and cognitive restructuring (Carver &
Connor-Smith, 2010), whereas disengagement coping is focu-
sed on emotions with the aim of escaping feelings of distress,
and includes strategies such as avoidance and denial.
According to Cunningham, De La Rosa and Jex (2008), ef-
fective coping “allows a person to maintain and possibly im-
prove his/her well-being in the face of challenging (positive) or
threatening (negative) situations” (p. 262). It is generally as-
sumed to be more beneficial for well-being to actively cope
with problems (Semmer & Meier, 2009) than to use emotion-
focused coping (Thoits, 1995). Some earlier studies have
shown that problem-focused strategies are more beneficial for
well-being (Bhagat, Allie, & Ford, 1991), whereas emotion-
focused strategies, are often considered to be positively associ-
ated with psychological distress (Coyne & Racioppo, 2000).
There are also studies (Torkelson & Muhonen, 2003; 2004) that
have not found any relationship between problem-focused
strategies and health. These contradictory results indicate that
no single coping strategy will be efficient across all situations
(Thoits, 1995). Since coping effectiveness has so far received
little attention in previous research (Pienaar, 2008) there is a
need for further studies.
Personality characteristics such as optimism, i.e. an individ-
ual’s generalized expectancy that future outcomes will be good
(Scheier & Carver, 1992), can influence how individuals cope
with different demands related to work. People who are opti-
mists have a propensity to use more problem-focused coping
strategies, whereas pessimists are more prone to using denial or
behavioral disengagement (Carver & Scheier, 2005). Several
studies have also found optimism to be beneficial for both psy-
chological and physical well-being (Carver & Scheier, 2005;
Scheier & Carver, 1992).
The aim of the present study was to examine the relationship
between coping, optimism, psychological and physical well-
T. MUHONEN ET AL. 585
being among a group of municipal employees. The effective-
ness of the different coping strategies and the role of optimism
were investigated by analyzing how they predicted psychology-
cal and physical well-being.
Questionnaires were distributed to 230 municipal employees
who visited a career coaching center in Western Sweden be-
tween March 2007 and March 2008. The career coaching center
was established as a joint venture between eight municipalities
in order to increase voluntary job mobility and thereby improve
well-being among municipal employees who had permanent
employment (a total of 17,000 employees). The staff turnover
in general was low (2% - 4%), but according to earlier ques-
tionnaires conducted by the municipality 10% - 20% of the
employees wanted to change their jobs. The career coaching
center aims to act proactively in order to increase job mobility
to prevent the employees from developing ill-health.
All in all 136 questionnaires were returned by mail to the
authors. The response rate was 59%. The participants repre-
sented a broad spectrum of occupations, but the majority was
working as teachers or nurses. A vast majority (89%) of the
participants were women, which could be anticipated due to the
female dominance in the municipal sector in general. The mean
age of the participants was 47 years (SD = 8.7), and most of
them were married (77%). All of the participants had perma-
nent employment in the municipality and had been working in
their current occupation and current workplace for an average
of nine years. A majority of the participants were not managers
(91%) and did not have university education (56%). No gender
differences concerning the background variables were found. A
large proportion of the participants, 50%, reported experiencing
much or very much stress (Muhonen, 2010).
Demographics. The demographic questions included age,
gender (1 = male, 2 = female), educational level (1 = university
degree, 0 = no university degree), and organizational level (1 =
manager, 2 = non-manager).
Coping. Coping was assessed by using the Swedish version
of Brief COPE (Muhonen & Torkelson, 2005) a scale originally
developed by Carver (1997) consisting of 28 items that measure
14 different coping strategies, namely, self-distraction, active
coping, denial, substance use, using emotional support, using
instrumental support, behavioral disengagement, venting, posi-
tive reframing, planning, humor, acceptance, religion and self-
blame. Brief COPE is widely used (Meyer, 2001; Welbourne et
al., 2007) and has shown to have acceptable reliability (Carver,
1997; Muhonen & Torkelson, 2005). The respondents rated
each item on a 4-point scale from 1 (I haven’t been doing this at
all) to 4 (I’ve been doing this a lot) in order to indicate what
they usually did when dealing with stress at work.
Optimism. Dispositional optimism was measured by the
Swedish version (Muhonen & Torkelson, 2005) of the Life
Orientation Test-Revised (LOT-R). LOT was originally deve-
loped by Scheier and Carver (1992) and revised by Scheier,
Carver and Bridges (1994). The LOT-R consists of six items
that evaluate generalized expectancies for either positive or
negative outcomes. A sample item is: “In uncertain times, I
usually expect the best.” Ratings were made on a 5-point scale
from 1 (I agree a lot) to 5 (I disagree a lot). Higher scores on
the LOT-R are considered to indicate increased optimism.
Psychological well-being. A Swedish version of the General
Health Questionnaire-12 (Sconfienza, 1998), originally deve-
loped by Goldberg (1972) was used to assess psychological
well-being. A sample item is: “I feel capable of making deci-
sions.” The respondents rated the items on a four-point scale
from 0 (Disagree very much) to 3 (Agree very much). Re-
sponses were coded so that high values indicate low psycho-
Physical well-being. Ten items from Subjective Health Com-
plaints―SHC (Eriksen, Ihlebæk & Ursin, 1999) were used to
measure physical well-being. The participants indicated the
severity of each complaint (e.g., headache, neck pain, dizziness)
on a four-point scale from 0 (none) to 3 (severe).
Descriptive statistics and reliabilities for the study variables
are presented in Table 1. The Cronbach alpha values for the
different coping strategies ranged from α = .88 to α = .51.The
scales for optimism, psychological well-being and physical
well-being also showed acceptable reliabilities (α = 74 - 88).
Descriptive statistics and Cronbach’s alphas for the s t udy variables.
Variable M SD
1. Age 46.99 8.74 n.a.
2. Gender 1.89 .31 n.a.
3. Educational level .44 .50 n.a.
4. Position 1.91 .29 n.a.
5. Self-distraction 2.23 .72 .56
6. Active coping 3.13 .57 .70
7. Denial 1.63 .64 .51
8. Substance use 1.06 .25 .56
9. Using emotional support 2.57 .70 .80
10. Using instrumental support 2.58 .65 .75
11. Behavioral disengagement 1.58 .58 .77
12. Venting 2.46 .67 .68
13. Positive reframing 2.71 .63 .67
14. Planning 3.02 .68 .82
15. Humor 2.17 .74 .88
16. Acceptance 2.48 .66 .54
17. Religion 1.49 .77 .87
18. Self-blame 2.29 .65 .59
19. Psychological well-being .98 .56 .88
20. Physical well-being .57 .50 .82
21. Optimism 3.38 .74 .74
Note. N = 130 - 134. n.a.= Not applicable.
T. MUHONEN ET AL.
Coping and Well-Being
As can be seen in Table 2, self-distraction, denial, behavioral
disengagement and self-blame were coping strategies that were
significantly correlated to poorer psychological as well as phy-
sical well-being. Active coping, emotional support, instrument-
tal support, positive reframing, planning, humor and acceptance
were correlated to better psychological well-being. None of the
coping strategies was related to better physical well-being.
Optimism, Coping and Well-Being
Higher optimism was significantly related to active coping,
emotional support, instrumental support, positive reframing and
planning, whereas denial, behavioral disengagement and self-
blame were related to lower optimism. Optimism was signifi-
cantly related to educational level and position, indicating that
participants who had a university education or a managerial
position scored higher on optimism. Further, optimism corre-
lated significantly with both psychological and physical well-
Coping and Optimism as Predictors of Well-Being
In order to investigate the role of the different coping strate-
gies and optimism as predictors of psychological and physical
well-being, separate multiple regression analyses were run on
the data. Table 3 shows the results of hierarchical multiple re-
gression analyses that were conducted in three steps. In the first
step the demographic variables age, gender, educational level
and position were entered as control variables. In the second
step the coping strategies were entered in the analysis and fi-
nally in the third step the variable optimism was entered in the
The results showed that none of the background variables
predicted psychological or physical well-being. When it comes
to coping, it was found that substance use, behavioral disen-
gagement and self-blame were related to poorer psychological
well-being, whereas acceptance was associated with better
psychological well-being. Optimism did not contribute signifi-
cantly to explained variance in psychological well-being. Only
two of the coping strategies, namely denial and acceptance,
acted as predictors of physical well-being. Denial was related to
poorer physical well-being, whereas acceptance was related to
Correlations for the s t udy variables.
Variable 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 101112131415 16 17 181920
1 Age –
2 Gender –.18 –
3 Education .03 –.05 –
4 Position .09 .10 –.28 –
5 Self-distraction .03 –.02 –.10 –.01 –
6 Active coping .09 –.12 .32 –.24 –.10 –
7 Denial .04 .10 –.47 .15 .28 –.23–
8 Substance use .10 –.03 .09 –.03 .01 .16.08–
9 Emot.support .21 .01 –.03 –.02 .03 .34.07.10–
10 Instr. support .14 .13 .02 –.08 .09 .34.09.03.75–
11 Beh.disengagement .06 .09 –.25 .13 .21 –.39.40–.04–.20–.11–
12 Venting .08 .04 .08 .02 .01 .31 .05 .19 .42 .44–.02–
13 Positive reframing .01 –.12 .19 –.10 .08 .41 –.04 .05.14.17 –.27–.07–
14 Planning .01 –.12 .21 –.04 .13 .67 –.09 .15.28.32 –.29 .35.35–
15 Humor –.01 .03 .07 .05 .06 .30 .14 .13 .21 .16–.06.13 .24 .37–
16 Acceptance –.06 –.12 .11 .06 .05 .23 .01 .05 .19 .09–.05.02 .38 .31 .37 –
17 Religion .05 .05 .12 –.01 .12 –.10.05.02 –.02 .06.06–.08 .20.02.14 .13 –
18 Self-blame –.07 .07 .10 .07 .25 .09 .16 .14 .08 .06 .16 .14 .04 .22 .19 .24 .06 –
19 Psychol.well-being .12 .06 –.05 –.01 .29 –.33 .26.12 –.22–.19 .51 –.08–.28–.21–.21 –.34 .11 .31–
20 Physical well-being .02 .07 –.08 –.02 .31 –.03 .28.12.01 –.06 .18.17 –.11 .09.10 –.11 .06 .28.49–
21 Optimism .11 –.13 .23 –.20 –.15 .37 –.23 .03.29.28 –.47 .17.23.25.06 –.06 –.02 –.21–.37–.21
Note. Spearman’s rho (listwise deletion of missing values). N = 121. Correlations ≥ .18 are significant at the 0.05 level (two-tailed). Gender (1 = male; 2 = female); educa-
tional level (0 = no university education; 1 = university education); position (1=manager; 2=non-manager); psychological and physical well-being (higher values indicate
oorer well-being); optimism (higher values indicate increased optimism). p
T. MUHONEN ET AL. 587
Results of hierarchical regre s s i o n a nalyses predicting psychological well-being and physiological well-bei ng .
Psychological well-being Physical well-being
β ΔR2 R
2 β ΔR2 R
Step 1 .01 .01 .01 .01
Age .09 .03
Gender .03 .03
Educational level .14 .06
Position –.08 –.08
Step 2 .59** .60 .29** .30
Self-distraction .08 .14
Active coping –.08 –.02
Denial .11 .25*
Substance use .17* .04
Emotional support .12 .12
Instrumental support –.14 –.25
Beh. disengagement .37** –.03
Venting –.10 .18
Positive reframing –.02 –.04
Planning .12 .10
Humor –.13 .09
Acceptance –.36** –.26*
Religion .06 .04
Self-blame .27** .17
Step 3 .01 .61 .03* .33
Optimism –.14 –.22*
Note. N = 121. * p < .05, ** p < .01.
better physical well-being. Further, optimism contributed to
explained variance in physical well-being.
In this study relationships between coping, optimism, psy-
chological and physical well-being were investigated among a
group of municipal employees. The role of optimism and the
effectiveness of the different coping strategies were investi-
gated by analyzing how they predicted psychological and
The results showed that the coping strategies self-distraction,
denial, behavioral disengagement and self-blame were related
to poorer psychological and physical well-being. All these stra-
tegies could be categorized as emotion-focused (Carver et al.,
1989; Folkman & Lazarus, 1980), but also as disengagement
coping (Carver & Connor-Smith, 2010). These findings are in
line with earlier research indicating that the emotion-focused
strategies are less beneficial (Coyne & Racioppo, 2000) or ef-
fective.The correlations showed that none of the coping strate-
gies was associated with better physical well-being, whereas
several strategies, i.e. active coping, emotional support, instru-
mental support, positive reframing, planning, humor and ac-
ceptance, were related to better psychological well-being.
These strategies could be classified as engagement coping
(Carver & Connor-Smith, 2010), and therefore in accordance
with earlier research showing that disengagement coping is in-
effective in reducing distress (Carver & Connor-Smith, 2010).
The results showed that a higher level of optimism correlated
significantly with active coping, emotional support, instrument-
tal support, positive reframing and planning, whereas denial,
behavioral disengagement and self-blame were related to lower
optimism. This confirms earlier findings by Carver & Scheier
(2005) who found that optimists have a propensity to use more
problem-focused coping strategies, whereas pessimists are more
prone to use denial or behavioral disengagement.
Optimism also correlated significantly with both psycho-
logical and physical well-being, relationships that have also
been found in earlier research (Carver & Scheier, 2005; Scheier
& Carver, 1992). Furthermore the results revealed that partici-
T. MUHONEN ET AL.
pants who had university education or managerial position
scored significantly higher on optimism, but optimism was not
related to gender, which is in line with earlier studies (Muhonen
& Torkelson, 2005).
The results of the multiple regression analyses showed that
none of the background variables predicted psychological or
physical well-being. When it comes to coping, the results re-
vealed a somewhat different pattern for psychological and
physical well-being. Substance use, behavioral disengagement
and self-blame were related to poorer psychological well-being,
while acceptance was associated with better psychological
well-being. Only two of the coping strategies, namely denial
and acceptance, acted as predictors for physical well-being.
Denial was related to poorer physical well-being, whereas ac-
ceptance was related to better physical well-being. The results
of the study indicate that the most adaptive or effective coping
strategy when it comes to both psychological and physical
well-being was acceptance. The distinction between disenga-
gement and engagement coping (Carver & Connor-Smith, 2010)
is supported by the results of the study. The coping strategies
that predicted poorer psychological well-being, namely sub-
stance use, behavioral disengagement and self-blame, can be
classified as disengagement coping, whereas the coping stra-
tegy acceptance, which predicted both psychological and physi-
cal well-being, can be classified as engagement coping (Carver
& Connor-Smith, 2010). Disengagement coping in the form of
denial appeared to be ineffective, whereas engagement coping
in the form of acceptance seemed to be effective when it comes
to psychological and physical well-being. In earlier studies both
of these strategies have been categorized as emotion-focused
coping despite the fact that these strategies can lead to different
outcomes (Carver & Scheier, 2005). Denial is a strategy that
means refusing to face reality and attempting to rely on a view
that is no longer relevant, whereas acceptance indicates re-
structuring the experiences in order to cope with the reality of
the situation (Carver & Scheier, 2005).
The relationship between optimism and well-being appeared
to be somewhat inconclusive. Even though optimism correlated
significantly with both psychological and physical well-being,
it only predicted physical but not psychological well-being
when all the other variables in the model were controlled for.
This is a somewhat puzzling finding that needs to be investi-
There are some limitations in this study that should be taken
into consideration. The number of participants is rather limited,
consisting of employees who represent a broad range of occu-
pations in the municipal sector. Some of the alpha values for
the coping scales, e.g. acceptance, denial, were somewhat low.
Since the reliability coefficient is related to the number of items
per scale (Cortina, 1993), it can be difficult to attain high reli-
ability values for scales that only consists of two items, as in
Brief COPE. And finally, since this a cross-sectional study, no
causal conclusions can be drawn.
In sum, the results of the study support the classification of
coping strategies into disengagement and engagement coping,
rather than using the emotion-focused and problem-focused dis-
tinction. The most adaptive or effective coping strategy con-
cerning psychological and physical well-being was acceptance,
which can be classified as engagement coping. Ineffective stra-
tegies regarding psychological well-being included disengage-
ment coping strategies such as substance use, behavioral disen-
gagement and self-blame. An ineffective strategy regarding
physiological well-being was denial, which can be classified as
a disengagement strategy. Optimism correlated significantly
with both psychological and physical well-being. However,
when all the variables in the model were included in the regres-
sion analysis, optimism explained additional variance in physi-
cal well-being but not in psychological wellbeing.
Considering the high rate of stress in current working life, it
is important to investigate further the effectiveness of disen-
gagement and engagement coping in order to be able to streng-
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