Optimism is something you hear about a lot. It’s a word that gets thrown around in all sorts of contexts. Governments always seem to have copious levels of optimism when it comes to ‘reaching agreement’ with whoever it is they are currently disagreeing; sports teams often seem to find ‘reason for optimism’ even after suffering heavy defeats; and doctors often state how they ‘remain optimistic’ that their patient will make a full recovery.
Those governments, sports teams and doctors either choose to, or have good grounds to, believe that everything will turn out OK. A bit like Jim Lovell in this clip from the movie Apollo 13…
But it’s that ‘glass always half full’ and ‘everything’s gonna be just fine’ side to optimism that means that, all too often, it’s seen as a fluffy idea – the stuff of fairy tales, and people who believe the world is all sunshine, rainbows and unicorns. But there’s a lot more to optimism than simply believing that, somehow, everything is going to be OK. And over 20 years of research has proved that beyond doubt.
Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology discipline and author of many books, including ‘Learned Optimism’ , suggests that the way that we explain the causes and influences of past positive and negative events influences our expectations of the future, and leads to either optimism, or pessimism. And, for me (you may disagree), the idea that there is something clearly identifiable – a cause or influence – to anchor your view of the future to makes sense.
So, how does optimism work?
Well, sticking with Seligman’s theory of optimism, whether or not you feel positive about the future, when you find yourself in different situations, depends on your answers to three simple questions:
1. Who or what is the situation due to?
Say you failed a test. You may see that as being down to an external factor – lack of preparation, a nightmare journey to the test centre, feeling under the weather, for example. Or, you may put it down to an internal cause – your own lack of ability or skill, for example. If you go along the external factor route, you are more likely to be optimistic about the future – a bit more hard work, or a smoother journey next time, and everything should go well. But, if you put it down to internal causes, you are more likely to see a bleak future – no matter how many times you retake that test, you will fail every time because you just aren’t good enough.
2. How long will the situation last?
You may find yourself in the middle of a great experience. Maybe your career is flying, or you are getting picked in the starting line-up for your sports team, or you have just started a relationship with the guy or girl of your dreams. If your answer to the “How long will this last?” question is “Forever and a day”, then you can be pretty sure that your outlook will be positive and you will be optimistic. But, if you answer that question with “Not long – probably be over before you know it”, then the chances are you will have a pretty pessimistic view of the future.
3. What will the situation affect?
If you see failing that test as pretty much the end of every dream you ever held, then you are going to frame a negative view of what lies ahead, and become pessimistic. But, if you are able to view that failure as far less global than that, and to see it as more of a ‘one off’ – an anomaly – then you are much more likely to be able to brush that aside, and hold onto a much more positive – optimistic – view of the future.
Obviously, the path from optimism to pessimism is a continuum, and you may sit at different places along that continuum at different stages of your life, and in different types of situation. But, the principles of those three questions still stand.
But is optimism always a good thing?
There are all sorts of reasons why optimism is a good thing, and why it plays such an important role in successfully navigating your adventure into becoming your best self. For example, research shows that optimistic people are less likely to experience distress, use denial, or simply throw the towel in. They are more likely to achieve their goals, tend to be more motivated, are better at building effective social networks, have higher productivity and greater chances of promotion, and are less likely to quit their job.
But, there’s a flipside to optimism. You see, optimists tend to have high expectations, so they have further to fall, and experience more of a negative impact, when things don’t work out as they hoped. Optimists may also be more likely to persist with unhelpful activities than pessimists – such as the gambler who, in their optimism, believes “just one more hand and I’ll win it all back”. Optimism can also undermine effective decision-making, tending to make people gloss over the downsides and just focus on the ‘good stuff’. Finally, optimists can be hit really hard if life serves up a run of negative events – the cumulative effect of things not going well can be super-detrimental for an optimist.
So, as the saying goes, ‘all that glitters is not always gold’. But, that said, the benefits of optimism do seem to outweigh the pitfalls; and, the good news is that, even if you aren’t much of one for ‘seeing the bright side’ right now, optimism can be learned and built.
Ways to build optimism
So, let’s wrap things up by exploring a few of the many different ways you can develop your levels of optimism.
The ‘Best Possible Self’ exercise is a great way to tap into, and build, an optimistic view of the future. It is also super-simple to do. Just grab a piece of paper and spend ten minutes (set a timer) thinking about your best possible future self, and write it down. Imagine life the way you always imagined it would be. Don’t worry about grammar or punctuation, just focus on writing. Then spend time reading it back and savour what a future like that would be like. Try doing this every day for a week and notice how your view of what lies ahead changes.
Random acts of kindness are a great way to build and learn optimism. Simply showing kindness to others, and witnessing the effect of those acts, can transform your view of the world, and your part in it. Set yourself a target to do at least one act of kindness every day for one week (and remember – keep it simple, and it doesn’t need to cost anything).
Lastly, for one week, spend ten minutes every evening reflecting on your day. Write down three good things that you experienced that day, what made them good, and the feelings they created in you. Each day, re-read every entry you have made up to that point. Seeing how many good things happen in your life can be a catalyst for optimism, as well as helping you maintain and build it as you move forward.
And, don’t forget, we have a ton of free tools and resources connected with learning and building optimism in the Live a Big Life Academy – find out more at www.liveabiglife.com/the-academy.