In celebration of …hey, we don’t any excuse…here’s to optimism.
“Always look on the bright side of life”.
I am positive, the founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman would be one to agree with Monty Python’s classic Life of Brian song.
We all experience highs and lows in our lives. How we view these depends on whether we take a pessimistic or optimistic outlook. From Seligman´s learned optimism research of the 1990s, he encourages us to become aware of our habitual ways of thinking. Of our explanatory style of how we attribute our success and failures.
In essence, pessimists will see the impact of bad events as long lasting. And pervading all aspects of their life. They blame themselves for it. Optimists on the other hand will see such events as a temporary set back. They will compartmentalise them in respect to other things going on in their life. And they will externalise any failure.
Of course, pessimism serves a function. It is useful when it concerns details, numbers, accuracy and issues of safety. We generally like our engineers, accountants and pilots to take caution, for instance. More often than not however, optimism will install positive emotional states that create an “upward spiral” of continued growth and thriving. It broadens thinking, helps with resilience and social connections. In essence it is good for us. And is more fun.
We are in a world where there is so much uncertainty. Where we are never really in control of much, despite what we may hope. And so it seems it is often better to err on the side of optimism. Assume the best will happen and act on the belief that success is achievable.
We can do this by becoming masters of our own minds. We can become aware of our habits of thought. Take the Optimism test on Seligman’s website for starters. And we can make conscious choices. We can challenge negative self-talk.
I run sessions on mindfulness and learned optimism. This combines the contemplative practice of observing our thoughts with the practice of changing those thoughts in a more positive way. From stillness, we can create more options. Mindfulness will help us find that space between stimulus and response. It can help us see more clearly what is available to us. From then we can be flexible, factoring in risk to choose optimism where it serves us well. We can learn to distance ourselves from the unhelpful thought by noticing it with detachment. And we can distract ourselves, by ´parking´ the thought and focusing on something else. Or we can dispute our assumptions and beliefs behind the thought to see other ways of looking at the event.
As the writer Paulo Coelho phrased it, “the optimist and the pessimist both die in the end, but each lives life in a completely different way.”
It seems optimism can bring us more happiness and health along the journey.
- Authentic Happiness website: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx
- Schulman, P (1999) Applying Learned Optimism to Increase Sales Productivity, Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, Vol XIX, Number 1 (Winter), pgs31-37
- Seligman, Martin. Learned Optimism. New York, NY: Pocket Books. 1998.
- Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash