In last week’s Blog, we talked about resilience and acceptance. Next in the Blog series “The DNA of resilience” is optimism – my fave subject because I, like many others, have bucket loads of optimism!
So if resilience is our ability to bounce back from the ups and downs of life, how does optimism play into this ability. So let’s start the discussion by talking about optimism and then we will see how this relates and “ties in with” resilience.
The Science Says
According to Dr. Kathleen Hall, “Science tells us that optimism is a component of our deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). You can look back to your ancestors and see the imprints of optimism.
“About half of your optimism comes from your DNA and half comes from your environment. But if you weren’t born with optimistic DNA or didn’t receive doses of it in your environment as you were growing up, it is not too late. You can learn how to become optimistic. But why you ask?
Research has shown that optimists tend to cope in ways that are generally beneficial to their health. Optimistic people try to manage, reduce or eliminate the stressors or problems they face and because they do this, it has healthy effects on their immune system, together with good physical and mental health — another reason to be happy and optimistic.
So what does being optimistic mean?
Optimism is the name given to the personality trait exhibited by people who tend to expect that good things will happen to them and are optimistic about the future. The opposite of optimism is pessimism, which is when people have the belief that bad things will happen to them and in their future.
Becoming More Optimistic
Pessimism is a habit as much as a thought process. Like any habit or thought process, it can be changed. You, must be willing to put in the effort, though? The best method for dealing with habitual pessimism is to learn how to dispute (argue against) pessimistic thoughts as they arise in your mind. The disputing process has several steps:
- First, you must learn to identify which thoughts are pessimistic thoughts; you will need to be self-aware to do this. Being self-aware is where you can identify negative thoughts, behaviors and patterns in your life.
To illustrate this process, imagine that you have to give a talk to a group of people for the first time. You have prepared for it, you know your subject well and you are confident in the informiton you are about to give to your group. However into your mind “pops” the thought bubble that says any of the following “you don’t know what you’re talking about” “who do you think you are talking about this” etc. etc. These are not realistic thoughts, are they? You can give this talk, you are qualified, and people will be interested.
- Once you have identified a pessimistic thought, you must examine it to see how reasonable that thought is. Ask yourself, “is there any good reason why this thought is pessimistic?”. If not, you’ll know how to dispute the thought.
- Biased or exaggerated thoughts (thoughts that are pessimistic for no good reason) must then be corrected with more realistic ones.
The first part of the process is to recognise that these negative and irrational thoughts are pessimistic ones. There is no evidence that these things are true, is there? You can dispute this thought by thinking more realistically about what the worst case scenario might be if your speech isn’t well received. Chances are, the speech will go fine.
Get those negative thoughts under control!
Even if a few people don’t like what you say, it is unlikely that your life will be ruined; in other words, it’s NOT a life or death situation at all. Who knows? Maybe people will even like your talk, and you will be asked to give more of them. Choose to focus on the positive possibilities, and counter your negative fears with realistic judgments and possibilities.
Optimists look on the bright side of life; they see their life as the glass half full scenario vs. the glass half empty scenario that pessimists see routinely. Optimism is a great personality trait to have and usually being blindly optimistic is balanced by the huge amount of negativity the world surrounds us in.
For example, it’s not a good idea to be optimistic about the weather when planning for an outdoor event because, despite your best wishes for sunshine and blue sky, it might rain and storm instead. In such circumstances, cautious optimism is the way to go. Plan for your event, but also have a “Plan B” ready in the event of rain.
Consider the cost of failure when deciding how optimistic to be about any given situation. If the cost of failure is high, you should be cautious about being blindly optimistic that your plan will work out for you. On the other hand, if the cost of failure is low, it is healthier to adopt an optimistic attitude rather than a pessimistic one.
When should we be optimistic?
Being optimistic makes the most sense when:
- You’re in an achievement situation, such as selling merchandise, working on a difficult report, or competing in a sporting event
- Your feeling sad or depressed or need to improve how you feel
- You’re faced with a long-term situation that affects your health
When to be less optimistic?
Being cautious makes more sense when:
- If your goal is risky or uncertain.
- You’re trying to encourage other people whose future looks grim.
- Your counseling a depressed or troubled person. Better to be empathetic first before suggestion of looking on the bright side.v
Having a positive outlook in difficult circumstances is not only an important predictor of resilience—how quickly people recover from adversity—but it is the most important predictor of it. Resilient people tend to be more positive and optimistic compared to less-resilient folks; they are better able to regulate their emotions, and they can maintain their optimism through the most trying of circumstances.