The Good News About Optimism
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Optimism is the hope that everything will turn out alright.
Optimism can express itself as:
- Dispositional- looking on the bright side of everything
- Situational- this particular project is on schedule and on budget and will end well
- Unrealistic- ignoring repeated data that customers are unhappy with the project
- Comparative- this project will bring in more money than anyone else’s
- Strategic- there’s not the slightest risk of the project failing because you’re in control
- Realistic- if the customers are unhappy, knowing their reasons will enable course correction.
Ways to Increase Your Optimism
The best news about optimism is that it can be learned.
Based on his research with college students, psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term “learned optimism.” He demonstrated that developing realistic optimism has lasting effects on a person’s ability to cope with and even prevent stress and adversity. He derived this because he found realistic optimists believe bad situations are temporary, they do not take failure personally or obsess over it, and they accurately assess the amount of control they have over situations. If they fail, they understand that one failure does not doom them to a lifetime of failure, and they look for the next steps. In a bad situation, they accept help and support to prevent and deal with consequences.
One of the pleasantest ways to increase optimism is to remember the times when you enjoyed yourself, when your efforts met with success, and when you turned around or recovered from a bad situation. This method builds on past experience and helps to develop self-efficacy, which is the belief in yourself and a reminder that you are powerful.
Optimism increases when you take success or failure off the table and enjoy the process. You can cultivate experiences that aren’t aimed at producing winners and losers (for example, by taking a walk or meeting friends for lunch), and you can consciously avoid turning every situation—even how far and fast you walk—into competition with everyone else. Continually comparing your life (achievements, possessions, relationships) against everyone else leads to unrealistic expectations, whether optimistic or pessimistic.
Optimistic self-talk is one of the foundations of meditation and other mindfulness methods that promote a sense of well-being. The Serenity Prayer and many other mantras focus on realistically acknowledging how much control we have over situations and that most situations are transitory, at least in their effects.
Another way to increase optimism is to take positive action: find a purpose outside yourself (volunteer, write letters to the editor, plant a garden), develop a community, turn off the news, spend time with optimistic people, write down each day one thing you were grateful for, and look for happiness in everyday events (a good book, an enjoyable meal, a butterfly showing up on your walk). Action, especially interaction with or on behalf of others, breaks the cycle of self-reproach and endless rumination over past events.
TIP: Optimism nourishes positive expectations that allow you to move forward despite obstacles.
Ways to Create an Optimistic Workplace
The next best news about optimism is that you can promote it in your team.
An optimistic leader is more likely to have an optimistic team. An optimistic leader recognizes the need for the team to have a goal, plays to the strengths of each team member, involves the team in decision making and problem-solving, and makes sure everyone has the resources they need. Those actions also promote optimism in the leader, who has the support of the team in making decisions and solving problems and who is fully involved with the whole team’s current welfare, rather than rehashing past situations or casting blame. Optimism is circular in a good way: optimistic people bring out the optimism in others.
While setting project-related goals is important, as a leader you should also keep in mind the individual goals of team members, and help them master the skills they need to grow. Seeing a path forward in their careers helps a team maintain their optimism even if a single project stumbles. With realistic optimism, team members also adapt quicker to changes; they are willing to see ways in which the change promotes their own and the team’s success.
Appreciation for past efforts is a vital part of creating an optimistic team. Recognition gives the team that important something-positive-to-look-back-on when things go wrong and build their ability to look for opportunities even in adversity. Realistic optimism based on past experience also keeps the team from unrealistic expectations about reward and punishment.
TIP: Optimistic teams are more productive, have lower turnover, and generally outperform others.
Ways to Build an Optimistic Relationship
Realistic optimism allows couples to thrive. A study of 108 couples revealed that optimism led to a feeling of more support from the partner in the relationship; they see their conflicts as less intense and are more satisfied with the resolution; and was a valid predictor of whether the relationship would last. Oddly enough, the researchers concluded that objective reality mattered less in a relationship than whether the partners shared the same idea of it: all that mattered was if they both thought the relationship was good.
Another study of 61 newlywed couples found that dispositional optimism (all is right with the world) naturally decreases over the years and that the move to realistic optimism led to more willingness to face disagreements and more ease in sharing real feelings, both necessary for a strong relationship.
Two mistakes related to optimism are most likely to undermine relationships:
- Optimism bias is the tendency to twist data so that it points to the best outcome, either giving you something you want or saving you from something you don’t want. Optimism bias may lead you to overlook another person’s point of view and to miss the risks in your plans.
- The inability to let go of past situations leads to conversations about “never” and “always,” which block any ability of either party to change.
Finally, just as with a working team, a person relationship thrives when there is a shared goal, room for each partner to grow, and a preference for finding solutions rather than blaming.
TIP: Your optimism helps others develop their own optimism; because you expect support and good outcomes, you are more likely to let them happen.
Realistic optimism leads to better relationships in both your personal and professional lives and it can be learned with practice or the help of a professional.