(Realistic) Optimism and Pessimism

It’s useful to remind ourselves that our thinking affects our feelings, and vice-versa, and that acknowledging this is a good first step to avoiding stress and promoting psychological wellbeing.

We’re going to refer to ‘helpful and unhelpful thinking’, rather than ‘positive and negative thinking’, as 'positive thinking' can somehow feel artificial, and forced and not always natural. "All you need to do is think positively, and everything will be alright". Well, that's not quite right, is it? If it does feel artificial and forced and unnatural, it’s not going to be easy or indeed useful to incorporate into our thinking style. Rather we can think about and work towards thinking in 'helpful ways', which are good for us, or 'unhelpful ways', which are bad for us. This way of defining how we think - is it good for me?/is it bad for me? - is more useful and elegant and realistic.  

A third strand to introduce is that of 'realistic optimism'. The research tells us that if we have an optimistic outlook, we are more likely to succeed, achieve our goals, be healthier, live longer, be more resilient and so on. It does not automatically follow of course, but these things are more likely to happen. We're 

  • less likely to be afraid of failure - one of the main reasons for not achieving, learning, growing etc. 
  • more able to recover from adversity
  • more likely to overcome hurdles/setbacks
  • more likely to find doors opening for us since we think they will be open
  • likely to be more successful professionally and privately

and so on.

It’s worth noting here that our thinking (and therefore how we react) at any particular moment may be influenced/dictated by for example, what else is going on for us in our lives, how we’re feeling generally and may also be situation-specific too, that is, how we reacted last time to that situation/thought/event may affect our thinking this time round. Safe to say that we can be more or less optimistic and pessimistic, depending on the foregoing. Where we’re at is not cast in stone, and what we’re discussing here is a tendency towards one or the other. (It's worth noting too that optimism and pessimism don't exist at opposite ends of the same scale, and are distinct and occupy separate dimensions).

Martin Seligman, known as the father of Positive Psychology, has written, amongst other things, about 'Learned Optimism'. As the title suggests, Dr. Seligman explains how optimism is a skill that can be learned, with practice and a helpful thinking style. The book is definitely worth a read if you have an interest in this area. In relation to how beneficial optimism can be in the workplace, he refers to research undertaken with new insurance salesmen, which in a nutshell demonstrates how optimism was a better indicator of how successful they would be, rather than academic prowess. When they faced adversity such as a rude customer, or someone putting the phone down, optimists were less likely to be put off, were more resilient, kept on going, and so on. He refers to two 'explanatory styles', that we tend to adhere to in terms of thinking styles, and about 'permanence', 'pervasiveness' and 'personalisation'. 

Optimistic and pessimistic thinking styles (from 'Learned Optimism' by Dr.Martin Seligman)

Meeting adversity
When something goes wrong, and we meet adversity, with a pessimistic thinking style we will tend to say to ourselves:
This is permanent: It will always be this way
This is pervasive: It affects everything to do with my life
This is personal/internal: It's my fault (I blame me)

With an optimistic thinking style and adversity, we will tend to say to ourselves:
This is temporary: It won't always be like this
This is specific: It only affects one area of my life
This is external/outside of me: It's not my fault (I don't blame me)

With a good event
Conversely, with a good event and a pessimistic thinking style we will tend to have the following thoughts:
This is temporary, it won't last
It doesn't affect other areas of my life
This is external/I didn't make it happen

With a good event and an optimistic thinking style, we'll tend to say to ourselves:
This was supposed to happen, it's permanent
It applies to everything, I'm always lucky (It's pervasive)
These things happen to me/It's down to me/It's supposed to happen (It's internal)

What does all this amount to? In brief, that if we can adopt an optimistic thinking style, we're more likely to be resilient, adaptable, able to cope with change, and more successful with what we are trying to achieve. It does mean too that we open up more possibilities and opportunities for ourselves, at home and at work. It's worth repeating too that optimism is a skill that we can learn, with practice. The more you do it, the better you'll get at it.

Stress Management Plus provide training in Realistic Optimism, looking at the skills required to improve and develop our thinking style if we need to. For more information, contact Marc Kirby via email or on 0118 3283246.

We're helping organisations (see our client list) to save money every day, just in reducing sick absence costs and the costs of under-performance.

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