We're missing the point (and power) of Optimism

October 2, 2018

When training resilience skills to the United States Army, my colleagues and I would often say “optimism is the engine that drives resilience.”  Without optimism, you aren’t going to get far in your quest to be more resilient and handle adversity more effectively.

 

Then we prepared for the onslaught of skepticism (which was welcome) and cynicism (maybe not as welcome) from the participants. This skepticism and cynicism stemmed from the assumption that optimism was about rainbows and butterflies and finding a reason to be happy about everything that happens. 

 

Some participants explained their logic of why pessimism is valuable: “you have to look at what went wrong and you can’t ignore the bad stuff.”  Some participants informed us they were neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but realists (which always seemed to be accompanied by a superior tone and dismissive hand wave that pushes the “soft impracticality” of trifles like optimism and pessimism away from them).

 

But they’re all missing the point; and they closed themselves off to a true super power. 

 

They seemed to think that optimism, pessimism and realism are points on a continuum indicating where our mindset is right now.  Pessimism was at one end, optimism at the other, with realists being in the middle.  This implied optimists and pessimists were both some level of delusional or not grounded to reality.  In this view, let’s say I scored a 50% on an exam.  As a pessimist, I might say “I got 50% of the questions wrong”.  As an optimist, I might say “yes I failed, but hey, I got 50% of the questions right!”  As a realist, I might say "I scored 50% on the exam, and failed."

 

The true destructive power of pessimism, and the super power of optimism (and where most realists are actually optimists in disguise) comes in the next sentence.  As a pessimist, my next sentence might be “I’m so stupid, I’m going to fail the class—I might as well give up now.”  As an optimist (and most realists), my next sentence might be “I really screwed up this time, but I can study better, ask for extra credit, and focus on doing better on my next paper. 

 

Research has shown that an optimistic thinking style has been linked with better health, better recovery from injury and illness, longer life, greater success and perseverance, and better relationships and a pessimistic thinking style is linked to depression, failure, morbidity and mortality and fewer strong support systems.  With pessimistic thinkers, the power is in the circumstances.  This means you have little to no ability to change things for the better.  With optimistic thinkers, the power is in the individual, meaning you have great ability to take action on controllable variables and create a better future outcome.  Most definitions of optimism relate to the general expectation that things will be good in the future, but optimistic thinkers tend to be more realistic and very skilled at identifying and acting upon factors they can control.  

 

The point (and power) of optimism isn’t whether the glass is half full or half empty (or containing 50% of the total volume of the glass).  The point is that there is room in the glass for more AND there are things you can do to fill the glass.

 

Stay tuned for more posts on how to build and protect this super power.

 

References

 

Hasnain, N., Wazid, S., Hasan, Z. (2014).  Optimism, Hope and Happiness as correlate of Psychological Well-Being among Young Adult Assamese Males and Females.  IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences 19(2), 44-51.

 

Peterson, C. (2006).  A Primer In Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Safri, T. (2016). Hope: A Psychological Perspective. Indian Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(1), 138-140.

 

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