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How to be optimistic even when the future looks uncertain

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Six ways to embrace optimism

In her latest guest post workplace wellbeing educator Anna Glynn explores the differences between optimism and pessimism, and how boosting our optimistic approach can better the way we view the world and face challenges.

Winston Churchill famously claimed, “a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”.

Are you typically an optimist or a pessimist? As in, do you consider your glass is half-empty or half-full?

Whilst we face pandemic-related challenges, optimism may be one of the most important tools for us to have to help us endure this storm.

“Choose to be optimistic,
it feels better.”

Dalai Lama

Understand what drives optimism

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Wong (2020), “optimism is the faith or belief in a better future that provides the hope and confidence to realise it despite the uncertainty.”

Optimism enables us to cope with stressors in the present as it supports us to expect a better future at some point. And even if the future doesn’t take place as planned, optimism helps us bounce back from disappointments, as there is an ongoing expectation that things will get better eventually. 

What’s more, when someone is optimistic, they look for learnings in both positive and negative events, and they’re more likely to take continued action in the face of obstacles as opposed to pessimists who don’t tend to persist. Interestingly, even when pessimists are right and the future does turn out badly, they typically don’t feel better but actually much worse, as they can’t see any good that could come from these challenges and view them as their worst-case scenarios.

Optimism enables people to better adapt and to focus on the positives, and to be hopeful about the future despite the setbacks.

The optimist sees the rose and not its thorns; the pessimist stares at the thorns, oblivious to the rose. 

Khalil Gilbran

Compare the differences between optimism and pessimism

One of the biggest differences between an optimist and a pessimist is how they both think in times of challenge and adversity. Those who are more pessimistic tend to stress the negative, they have unfavourable future expectations, and believe that the bad outweighs the good in the world. Often pessimists withdraw from life’s activities and as a result they are more likely to experience physical and mental health challenges including depression, stress and anxiety (Kamen & Seligman, 1987).

On the flip side, optimism can enhance our wellbeing and has been positively correlated with life satisfaction. Optimism also comes with a whole range of other benefits including better mental and physical health, stronger and longer-lasting relationships (as optimists are happier and easier to be around), and better grades at school and university. Most recently, during the pandemic, studies have found that optimism was inversely related to anxiety and depression (Arslan et al., 2020).

It’s also interesting to note that optimists typically are more successful in their careers and attain a higher income (Carver et al., 2010), although this very much depends on the type of role one has.

According to a substantial amount of research undertaken over previous decades, optimistic people tend to be more successful in sales positions (Seligman & Schulman, 1986; Seligman, 2011). Yet interestingly, in roles that are about avoiding risk or preventing mistakes, pessimism is more important, such as law, civil engineering and some operations and risk management roles. This makes sense but is important for people who have these types of jobs to consider. How can they be pessimists when it comes to their work, but optimists at other times given its importance to both their resilience and wellbeing?

Read Anna’s article on understanding our negativity bias.

Which one are you?

Determine if you are a pessimist or an optimist

Typically, there are two ways to assess whether you fall into the optimist or pessimist category. The first is to look at whether you think favourably or unfavourably about the future, which is measured by the Life Orientation Test (Scheier, Carver, & Bridges, 1994). The second considers how you explain past bad events, which is called your explanatory style (Seligman, 1990), and will be covered further here.

Clinical Psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman (1990), an expert on learned optimism, suggests that pessimists consider previous negative experiences as entirely their fault, something that would never change and that it would negatively impact every area of their life. Whereas optimists view the same events as temporary, caused by something external and contained to that one event (Seligman, 1990).

From these interpretations, do you identify as an optimist or pessimist?

Depending on what your typical explanatory style is, you may be pleased to know that optimism can be learned quite easily (Gillham, Reivich, Jaycox, & Seligman, 1995). 

Interested in the Life Orientation Test and how to use it? Click here to see Anna’s explanation.

Become more optimistic

Given the benefits already outlined, it makes sense that we should all want to be more optimistic. Outside of genes and socioeconomic status, there are factors within your control that will enable you to become more optimistic. Studies have uncovered the typical thoughts, actions and feelings that optimists typically engage in, perhaps more so than pessimists, which are as follows:

Thoughts

  • Can identify problems
  • See challenges as opportunities
  • Identify what they can control

Feelings

  • More positive
  • Use humour
  • Are grateful

Actions

  • Approach orientated
  • Ask for help and seek information
  • Take action.

Extracted from Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty course by the Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania.

We know our thoughts drive our actions and behaviours. Therefore, by challenging and altering our thoughts to be more optimistic (i.e. we see challenges as opportunities), we will act and feel more optimistic too.

Boost your optimism

Optimism can be increased through the practise of gratitude. Gratitude enables us to experience positive emotions, which helps build our resilience over time. Although it may seem odd or insensitive to suggest we need to boost positivity whilst the pandemic is still in full flight, it may be just the thing that helps us. Positive emotions like joy, curiosity, love and gratitude broaden our thinking so we are more open, creative and optimistic. 

A study of significantly distressed students after 9/11, showed that those who experienced more positive emotions in the aftermath created more psychological resources including resilience over the longer term. So if we experience positive emotions during and post crises, this will buffer us against depression and enable us to better thrive going forward (Fredrickson et al., 2003).

We can foster gratitude by writing down what we’re grateful for daily and why we’re grateful for them. They can be big things like good health or great relationships, or little things such as a take-away coffee or listening to your favourite song. By doing this over a long period of time, you will notice that your brain will start scanning the world not for the negative but for the positive first. You will look at what you’ve got more than what you don’t have. And this will boost your optimism going forward.

Embrace the right amount of optimism

Can you have too much optimism? The answer is yes, just like too much of anything can be harmful. For example, having what’s called an optimism bias can cause people to have a false sense of security and underestimate potential risks to themselves. Typically, this bias is common in smokers or gamblers, who believe that health problems or monetary loss won’t happen to them. Being too optimistic at work can also result in poor planning, a failure to source necessary resources and a reliance on hard work and determination (Compton & Hoffman, 2012; Peterson, 2000). And of course, there’s always a time and place for some mild pessimism…

When people are too optimistic, it isn’t considered a good thing and they’re often compared to Pollyanna, a character from a children’s book who always looked on the bright side and is considered the most optimistic of girls. The “Pollyanna Principle” is considered a positivity bias (the opposite of the negativity bias), which is when we focus more so on the positive than the negative, and recall more positive experiences from our past than the negative. As with most things in life, we need to find a healthy balance between too much optimism and a good dose of mild pessimism, which brings us to realistic optimism.

Realistic optimism is the term used to describe those who are hopeful and positive about the future, but have assessed, understood and accepted their reality, are well aware of potential risks and have developed strategies to help reduce any fallout (Schneider, 2001). According to Schneider, a professor from the Department of Psychology, University of South Florida, “realistic optimism is about hoping, aspiring and searching for positive experiences, whilst acknowledging what we do not know and accepting what we cannot know”.

Although optimism won’t make us immune from the challenges in life like this global pandemic, it can support us to be hopeful of a better future.

In many ways it gets back to how you choose to view the world, just like the glass half full / half empty analogy. Technically the glass is always full, it just depends on whether you count both the water and air or not.

You can also read Anna’s previous articles on languishing, avoiding negative thinking traps, tips to remain motivated in your work, strengthening your resilience muscle, and how to stay emotionally connected while working apart.

You can read more about Anna here, on her LinkedIn or Facebook pages

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