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Optimism: Looking on the Bright Side of Life

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Nick has just lost his job, but he’s optimistic he’ll find a new one; Morgan has just received kudos for her innovation but is pessimistic about her abilities to ever innovate like that again. The odd thing about optimism and pessimism is that they may bear almost no relation to the actual circumstances of our life. So where does optimism come from, is it better than pessimism, does it have any downsides, and how does one encourage its positive effects?

Where Does Optimism Come from?

Psychological research has come up with many types of optimism, depending on the belief in the permanence, frequency, agency, and realism of good events and the power assigned to outside forces, changing circumstances, and the effects of the event or choice on the person. 

Nick believes that he’ll find a new job because he has changed jobs before, has kept up his network and resume, and is able to live on mac-and-cheese if needed to make his unemployment last. He believes in the impermanence of bad events, takes agency over his job hunt by working his network and upgrading his resume, and believes he can control the effects of the job loss while he conducts his search.

Optimists are more likely to persevere because they expect a good outcome eventually; and are more likely to take chances They are collaborative, social, and interested in building on achievements for their team as well as themselves. 

How Do You Keep Optimism Realistic?

An optimist is realistic when it takes note of negative data, knows when abandon an upromising strategy, considers and works to overcome the obstacles to change (in Nick’s case, high unemployment, for example), and is based on sufficient research into all the options. If a person always expects the best even when it can’t possibly happen, everyone else becomes a pessimist. 

Because he has reasons for his optimism, has proven his ability to find a new job in the past, and has already begun to strategize, Nick’s confidence is realistic and would win support from those around him. Realistic optimism is contagious and encourages the very outcome the optimist has predicted.

How Do You Encourage Optimism?

Research shows a positive relationship among optimism, resilience, and a sense of well-being. That is, the more optimistic a person is, the greater their resilience and well-being and vice versa. Both resilience and well-being are going to improve productivity, collaboration, turnover, and coping skills.

Assuming that your team needs more optimism, here are several ways to encourage optimism in the workplace:

  • Provide wins: Recognize and appreciate even small acts of helpfulness and kindness, as well as the big wins.
  • Support friendship: Be glad when team members develop friendships, and develop work friendships of your own.
  • Know your team: Speak to the people you lead one-on-one, discover the work barriers they face, and collaborate to help remove those barriers.
  • Give the team purpose: People with a mission and belief in what they are doing are more likely to be optimists (and vice versa).
  • Support growth: Give your team opportunities to develop their strengths through experience, training, mentorship, coaching, and an environment that welcomes growth.
  • Be optimistic if you can: Model optimism, collaboration, and interest in others.
  • Rely on optimists if you can’t: If you are a pessimist, find optimists to work with to balance your tendency to avoid risk, overemphasize problem analysis, and over-test every new idea.
  • Don’t force anyone: Few people are more irritating than someone who forces optimism (“give me a smile, you have a great smile!”); respect the contribution of pessimists.

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