To Optional, or not to Optional?

To Optional, or not to Optional?

2020, Aug 20    

Java’s Optional is quite a simple type. Most of the API can be easily understood and used. There are numerous examples on the internet which give us sufficient idea about what each and every method in Optional does. As it is so easy to use, there is a possibility that it gets overused.

Should we use it at every place where possible? This is where there are many different opinions in the community. If you follow that discussion, you can learn a lot from it. This blog enlists some of the important things to keep in mind while using Optional.

Note: There is another post on Optional which explores the important aspects of Optional API. You can find it here.

What is the purpose of Optional?

Optional helps in representing a case of missing value. For example, if you ask a person about their email address, they may or may not have an email. So if you create a Person class with retrieveEmail() method it should return a value that can represent the case of missing email. Traditionally null was used to indicate the no-email scenario. But this has many problems. It could mean that something went wrong while retrieving the email. Also someone might call a method on the returned null-email only to get NullPointerException. This is where you would use Optional. So the method returns Optional<String>. It can be empty which represents the missing-value scenario.

The most important benefit of Optional is that it triggers you to think about this missing-value scenario and to handle it properly. When you see a method returning Optional, it serves as a reminder that the method might return an empty value and we need to be prepared for it.

The original intention why Optional was introduced in Java was to make use of fluent API while handling Stream-s. (See this discussion for more info on that.) Without this, developers had to use NoSuchElementException and that’s very cumbersome. With Optional, it becomes ‘fluent’. For example, if you have a list of scores (in a fictitious game) and you want to present an award to the first player scoring a century, you can do so by
      .ifPresentOrElse(s -> System.out.println("Award goes to " + s.getPlayer()),
                      () -> System.out.println("Nobody gets an award"));

(Read more about the origin of the term fluent API here:

Note: All source code for this post is present here:

Should you use get()?

Optional is a wrapper type and you obviously need to get the value out of its instance quite often. A straightforward way of doing that is to use get(). But a problem with get() is that it throws NoSuchElementException, if the instance is empty. So whenever we call get(), we have to make absolutely sure that it is not empty. We can do that by using isPresent() on the instance. For example, if you want to send an email to a person if they have an email and do nothing otherwise, then it can be done by

Optional<String> email = person.retrieveEmail();
if(email.isPresent()) {

But this is no better than using null and performing a null-check before using any object that can be null. Also it would have been great if compiler could prevent us from doing an unsafe get(). But that is not possible with the current Optional API. So if you forget to check before using an empty object, you’ll reach the inevitable NoSuchElementException. Therefore it is best to avoid using get() as much as possible.

What’s the alternative then? We need to think a bit further and see what we want to do with the value. Then depending on what we want to do, we can use orElse(), orElseGet(), ifPresent(), filter(), map() or flatMap(). In the above code, we just want to consume the value and use it to send an email. So here ifPresent() can be used

person.retrieveEmail().ifPresent(email -> sendEmail(email));

Difference between orElse() and orElseGet()

Sometimes we want to provide default value when the value is missing. This can be done by using orElse() or orElseGet(). For example, consider a website where getUser() gives current user and getName() gives their name if they are logged in and empty otherwise. In case it is empty, if we want to generate a name from random strings we can do so by


In this example even if user’s name is known, the program would still execute generateRandomName() which is unnecessary. And to avoid that, we can use orElseGet(). orElseGet() is lazy. It adds laziness by accepting a Supplier. So above example with orElseGet() becomes

getUser().getName().orElseGet(() -> generateRandomName());

In this case genrateRandomName() will be executed only if name is empty.

So a general guideline would be: use orElseGet() if you have to calculate default value and use orElse() when the default is a literal value or is readily available.

Optional as method return type

Using Optional as a return type for public methods is a recommended way of using it. This creates a clear contract for the users of the method. This makes it clear that they can expect an empty value and need to handle it properly. As an example, here’s implementation of the retrieveEmail() method that was referred earlier

public Optional<String> retrieveEmail() {
    return address.getType().equals(Address.Type.EMAIL))
        ? Optional.of(address.getValue())
        : Optional.empty();

But it is not recommended to be used as return type for POJO getters. Because this would mean we would have to deviate from convention. Also some frameworks and libraries require the getters to have same return type as their corresponding fields.

As stated earlier, Optional is a wrapper type and therefore requires the object to be wrapped/ unwrapped. So if you’re writing performance critical code, you can stay away from it. Also if your method is private, the Optional instances can be very short lived and would only add overhead. Here we can deal with nulls. We just have to ensure that null references are not crossing object boundaries.

Optionals as fields

Using Optional as a type for fields in a class, is generally not a bad idea. But it is not recommended by JSR-335 Expert Group (the creators of Optional). You can read more about it here. As the introduction of Optional did not have the intention of using it this way, it may not work as expected in some scenarios. Below is a list of some of these.

If it is inside a Serializable class then serialization may not work. A Serializable class with Optional field would throw NotSerializableException when you try to serialize its instance. An explanation (and history behind) the decision of not making Optional serializable is here.

If you want to convert a Java object to JSON, it creates an unnecessary wrapper. For example, an object of this class

public class Person {
    private String name;
    private Optional<String> email;

would produce a JSON like this

{"name":"Bruce Wayne","email":{"present":true}}

That’s not exactly what you would want. Although if you use Jackson, you can correct it with jackson-modules-java8 So the JSON would become

{"name":"Bruce Wayne","email":""}

If you use JPA (with ORM libraries like Hibernate), you can’t map Optional field to a column in database table.

So if you want to use Optional fields in classes be very careful of these scenarios.

Optional as method parameter type

Using Optional as method parameter type is not really recommended as it can make the API more complex than it needs to be and method overloading is a better alternative. Consider below method which searches for players with given country and optionally with a minimum rating.

public static List<Player> searchFor(Country country, Optional<Integer> minimumRatingOptional) {
    int minimumRating = minimumRatingOptional.orElse(RATING_MIN_VALUE);
        .filter(p -> p.getCountry().equals(country))
        .filter(p -> p.getRating() >= minimumRating)

So when someone wants to call this method they can do so like this

searchFor(Country.NL, Optional.empty())
searchFor(Country.IN, Optional.of(1000))

which is slightly obscured. In fact with method overloading it can be better written as

public static List<Player> searchFor(Country country) {
    return searchFor(country, RATING_MIN_VALUE);
public static List<Player> searchFor(Country country, int minimumRating) {
        .filter(p -> p.getCountry().equals(country))
        .filter(p -> p.getRating() >= minimumRating)
    return players;

These methods can then be called as

searchFor(Country.IN, 1000)

No need for creating Optional instances.


These are some examples where one should or should not use Optional. But these are guidelines and are applicable in most of the cases. There can always be instances where deviation from these is better. But with these in mind one can make a more informed decision.

Note: All source code for this post is present here: