The Importance of Optimism
As I continue to learn as much as I can about resilience, I have explored many different resources. One of them is the University of Penn’s course on resiliency (found here – and right now it’s free!). Resilience is made up of many building blocks. They include biology (your genetics), self-awareness, self-regulation, mental agility, self-efficacy, connection, positive institutions, and optimism. Today, we focus on optimism.
What is optimism?
Optimism is the “engine of resilience”. It gives us the power to persist! Optimism is the belief in a positive future, the ability to separate things you can control vs things you must accept, and the ability to see stressors as challenges instead of threats. An optimistic person thinks, “In uncertain times, I expect the best.” On the other hand, a pessimist thinks, “I rarely expect good things to happen.”
Some people mistakenly think of optimistic people as seeing the world through “rose-colored glasses” - everything is unicorns and rainbows. On the contrary, optimists are skillful at identifying problems, stepping into the situation, and finding solutions. They think, “Okay, I see a problem, but I know there are parts of it I can control. I have the skills to handle this.”
Pessimists, on the other hand, are more likely to see challenges as threats. They tend to withdrawal from a problem and avoid it. They are more likely to be passive in their response, believing that they can do nothing to change the result. Optimists focus on what they can influence or control!
A great example of this is a person who receives an unfortunate health prognosis. The pessimist who survives a heart attack may believe they have no control over the outcome, so they avoid the issue. They may decide not to change their exercise or diet habits because they believe it doesn’t matter what they’ll do – difficulties and challenges will still find a way into their life. On the other hand, an optimist who survives a heart attack will typically seek information, research their illness or disease, find solutions to problems, and influence things they can (such as lifestyle changes). This has a huge impact on their health outcomes, as you could imagine.
Why is optimism important?
Simply put, our thoughts drive what we feel and what we do. If we can control our outlook on life with the results of living healthier, longer lives with the below benefits… why wouldn’t we?
What are the benefits of optimism?
The benefits are seemingly endless. Research has proven that optimistic people reap many benefits. In comparison to pessimists or people who are less optimistic, people with high optimism:
· Live longer lives
· Have higher quality lives
· Are healthier
· Have better relationships
· Have better mental and emotional health
· Are more productive at work
· Are better performers at work
· Are more likely to stay at their job
· Are perceived to be better leaders
· Have higher GPAs (yes, really)
· Are less likely to have depressive symptoms
· Are more likely to ask for help or support
· Are more skilled at identifying problems and solving them
· Are more likely to use humor as a way to cope
· Typically see a difficult situation as temporary
· Keep exercise routines
· Eat healthier foods
· Let go of things they cannot change
· Are more likely to take action (opposed to being passive)
· Have a better immune response
· Are less likely to have coronary artery disease
· If hospitalized, are less likely to be re-hospitalized
· Are 14% less likely to die from any cause
· Are 30% less likely to die from coronary artery disease
· Are better at problem solving
· Have better sport performance (perform better under pressure)
Ingredients of an Optimist:
· Identify problems and see them as challenges, not threats
· Focus on what you can control and letting go of what you cannot
· Take purposeful action
· Ask for help when needed and have at least one support person you can depend on
· Use humor as a way to cope with difficult situations
· Treat the body kindly with exercise, good nutrition, and stress-relieving activities
Can optimism be learned?
Optimism, like a muscle, can be trained and made stronger. By completing activities and challenging your mind to see things in a more hopeful way, you can learn to be more optimistic! Here are two things you can do right now to practice optimism.
One – Take the optimism test at Authentic Happiness (you will need to create a log in). The quiz takes about 5 minutes and gives you results immediately. Review your scores and what they mean. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? This will give insight into your tendencies.
For example, a stressful work experience recently challenged my typically positive outlook and negatively impacted the way I view work in general. It has been hard to shake this negative experience. My quiz scores made it clear that this experience impacted me so much that I now tend to be more pessimistic. I realize I need to act and make a change in my mindset before it invades my outlook all together!
Two – Complete this activity to improve your optimism:
Think about a situation that was stressful or that you have struggled with recently. Then, make three lists: one with aspects of the situation that you can control, one with aspects you cannot control and must accept, and finally, list purposeful action you can take to improve the situation.
I completed this exercise while keeping in mind the stressful situation I mentioned. It helped me realize that I was holding on to a lot of things that were outside of my control. Listing things I could influence and things I could do to make the situation better empowered me and helped me view it in a positive way (i.e., though I cannot control the way others perceive me, I can control my attitude and my outlook. I can choose to believe that this situation is temporary, that better things are coming, and that there is a lesson in this experience). I encourage you to try this exercise. It only takes a few minutes!
Hopefully I have convinced you that learning to be optimistic is a life skill that will benefit you greatly. If you’re comfortable, feel free to share your activity results in the comments below. Is there a time recently that challenged you? How did you overcome it? What role has optimism played in your life? I would love to hear anything you are willing to share!
University of Pennsylvania. (2020). Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty. coursera. https://www.coursera.org/learn/resilience-uncertainty/home/welcome.