How to be an optimist (and why bother)

My fiance is a great example of an optimist. He always feels optimistic about going to a random Melbourne restaurant without checking its rating and reviews (shocking, I know!).All the while I am secretly trying to look it up on Zomato and search for a plan B just in case it is rated below 3,5.  If you are not from Melbourne, let me offer you some context. Melbourne is a renowned food capital of Australia, the number of restaurants and cafes is staggering, with new ones opening up all the time. Even if you try, you will never be able to visit them all. In the face of this harsh reality, I conduct thorough due diligence, as I do not want to waste the precious opportunity of dining out in a mediocre place. I wonder if this qualifies me as a pessimist?

On a more serious note, extensive research suggests that being an optimist has many benefits (not related to venturing to various eateries without proper research), such as doing better at school and work, having a stronger social network, having more chance to win an election (Trump – an optimist?), having better overall health. Optimists may even live longer! Pessimists, on the contrary, tend to give up more easily, are more prone to depression and have poorer health. (reference: Learned Optimism by M. Seligman)

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist depends on how you explain bad events to yourself. The way you were brought up – your family and teachers have influenced your thinking style and may have even made you into a pessimist. This has of course been done with the best intentions of being cautious and protecting you from life’s disappointments. And now, in your pessimistic style, you are reading this and thinking  – you are who you are and nothing can be done. Not so fast, though! Optimism can be learnt. We can change our thinking patterns, learn to cultivate positivity and become more resilient.

Contrary to a popular belief that optimists see the world through rose-shaded glasses and avoid facing problems, it’s actually pessimists who tend to avoid dealing with problems. Optimists face their challenges head-on and come up with action plans and strategies to overcome them. This might be because optimists view problems as temporary (this will end soon), local (relates to just this 1 thing), not personal (it’s not entirely my fault) and controllable (there is something I can do). Pessimists tend to see their problems in an opposite way: permanent (this will last forever), pervasive (this will undermine everything!), personal (it’s all my fault) and uncontrollable (nothing I can do about it).

Example of an optimist vs pessimist in a work context

Imagine a typical office.  Mr X is a Sales Manager and he hasn’t met his sales target for this quarter. If Mr X is a pessimist his line of thinking will go something like this: ‘I have missed my sales target, this is definitely the start of a trend here. I don’t think I will ever be able to meet it again (permanent). I am such a failure (pervasive)! I should have pushed harder, I am certain Mrs Y has smashed hers(personal)!. Oh well, I did think this target was completely unrealistic, I don’t think there is anything I can do (uncontrollable).

What does Mr X think if he is an optimist?  ‘It’s a shame I missed my sales target, but this is only one quarter (temporary) and I have done well in other areas, like that awesome presentation I delivered last month (local). The overall environment wasn’t great – so many holidays and many key decision makers were away, that definitely did not help (not personal). I definitely could have pushed harder though. I should think back to what I can improve on and come up with a plan for the next quarter (controllable).

Cultivating positive emotions

If you have identified yourself as a pessimist fear not! Here’s what you can do to cultivate positivity and reduce negativity:

  • Remember how you felt when you experienced a positive emotion. Bringing back the memory will bring you into a more positive state.
  • Learn to rewire your brain to be more positive. This is where ‘fake it till you make it’ saying is very appropriate. Even if you are not feeling it, act as if you are experiencing a positive emotion. As I am not a scientist, I have no idea how and why this works. But research proves that it does, so as another saying goes  – Just Do It.
  • Cultivate a gratitude practice every day before bedtime. By paying more attention to the good in your life you end each day on a positive note.
  • Be more mindful of the emotions you already have and learn to notice them.
  • Focus on what you can control and accept what you can’t.
  • Spen more time with positive people.
  • Reduce the use of helpless language (‘I can’t do this.’ ‘This is never going to work’.)
  • Help someone. Doing something good for others often brings meaning and positive emotion to our life.

Leave a Reply