I was just packing up after delivering a presentation when one of the event organisers came up to me and said “Fantastic keynote Jenny, and I love how you’re always so positive. I guess you’ve always been that way. I regret, I’ve always been the glass half empty type.”
His assumption was wrong. I’ve had to work hard over the years to retain my optimism. Because I worked out early on, that to get through the tough times, to avoid sinking into that quagmire of catastrophe and despair, having a little ray of optimism and the hope that things will get better makes dealing with the pain that much easier.
And despite the well-worn myth that we are born hardwired with either a pessimistic or optimistic glow, the reality is we are both but importantly can become more resilient by learning how to nudge ourselves towards greater optimism.
Which helps to explain what optimism is; it’s a powerful strategy for coping with adversity.
The benefits of optimism.
- Optimism builds confidence and resilience
- It creates hope based on a realistic assessment
- It enables possibility
- It creates momentum for positive change
- Optimistic people live longer.
Now there’s a bonus better than any steak knives. According to John Medina, author of Brain Rules for Aging Well, optimism was shown in one study of over 97,250 women to be linked to an increase of our life span by eight years.
How that works is through its effect on the immune system and the reduction of stress and associated inflammation.
When our body is under attack from severe prolonged stress, high levels of cortisol impact our ability to ward off infection or cancer. High levels of inflammation are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and cognitive impairment. We also become more at risk of developing a mood disorder such as anxiety or depression.
Optimism is a powerful way to help us keep well and healthy both physically, mentally and cognitively.
What determines our level of optimism?
Partly through a genetic effect – your personality, and partly through what you’ve learned through social experience, what you’ve witnessed in seeing how your parents deal with adversity and their general outlook on life.
It’s important too not to confuse realistic optimism with the blind faith of “she’ll be right.”
The difference is in how much you care about the outcome, weighing up the situation you’re in, assessing what’s possible, feasible and achievable.
In other words optimism requires careful thought.
Studying Learned Optimism 101
Choosing to change your mind begins with the decision and the understanding of what you’re looking to achieve – your WHY.
In his book Learned Optimism Martin Seligman explains why optimists are almost always more successful in managing their relationships, careers, jobs and businesses than pessimists.
So, you want to lose weight and you’ve decided to go on a diet. Great. The one thing that will make the biggest difference to your success isn’t the latest and greatest dietary supplement or celebrity diet. It’s your expectation of success.
If you start off thinking “I’ve been on every diet known to man and none of them have ever worked, this one probably won’t either.” Well I guess you already know the answer to that scenario.
If instead your approach is “I know it’s going to take time and I’m going to be sorely tempted to give up, but this time I’m ready.” You’ve already put yourself in the winner’s box.
It’s the same at work. Feeling optimistic about your day, your job and your world is energising. You’re ready and willing to work hard, contribute more and see your performance and productivity soar.
Let’s face it. Each and every one of us will have those times where things don’t work out according to plan. Maybe you failed an important exam, went through a messy relationship break up or had to deal with your cat dying.
Optimism pulls us through so we can recover more quickly and get back on track with our lives.
If you want to check out your own level of optimism Martin Seligman has a free assessment available on his website Authentic Happiness.
Optimism raises dopamine levels
Being optimistic is rewarding to your brain leading to higher levels of dopamine, greater motivation and increased happiness. Not only that you’re more resilient, you cope better and you’re less afraid to take a risk or try out something new.
Is optimism the harder choice?
Some would say learning optimism is like swimming against the tide of pessimism. Sure there is a great deal of pessimism about the world and where’s it’s headed. The media is full of bad news stories about climate change, war, economic downturns and natural disasters.
Which is exactly why optimism is so important. It raises us up above the doom and gloom, retaining our natural human curiosity to ask the questions around what can we be doing to solve some of our greatest challenges.
When we choose to look, there is evidence of optimism all around us.
There are many people around the world doing important work who started with the belief that a solution to our problems will or can be found.
We have brilliant scientists working to find treatments for previously untreatable conditions, creating new medicines and eradicating disease.
We have rapidly advancing technologies and A.I. to assist us to work smarter.
Building optimism is simple.
- Practice an attitude of gratitude – every thank you, appreciative wave, handshake or acknowledgment of how others have had a positive impact on your life provides an immediate boost to your level of optimism.
- Recall 3 good things each day. Journaling gratitude for 3 weeks has been shown to produce up to 6 months of increased optimism
- Do nice things for other people. Being kind isn’t about winning the office popularity contest, it’s demonstrating your ability to relate to and help others elevating your EQ and S(social)Q simultaneously.
- Smile! It’s amazing how a simple smile defrays stress and tension in ourselves and others. A worry now feels less foreboding, we feel more confident and relaxed.
- Challenge that thought! When you notice you’ve bought into the negativity of a situation, challenge your thinking and ask – is there is different perspective I could take here?
- Hang out with other optimistic people
- Have something to look forward to. Tomorrow is another day.
When facing tragedy optimism can unify us and enable us to collectively step up to the challenge and release something of beauty that is unexpected. It restores our faith following times of loss when we reflect on what has passed.
It stokes renewal like the leaf buds on trees that herald spring following a long hard winter.
That’s why smarter, sharper thinking always includes a healthy dose of optimism.
How would changing your style of thinking assist you in your life or work?