We all have heard the expression that you can see the glass as half full or half empty, which implies that we have a choice in seeing the world the way we want to. Some challenge that and wonder how much can someone’s outlook on life be altered? The good news is research has shown that optimism, which is one of the Emotional Intelligence skills, can be learned. It is vital for organizations be chock full of optimists and the positive attitudes that come with them. If you would like information on testing your optimism or learn how to increase it, read on.
Optimism has a correlation with better health (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/positive-thinking/SR00009), longer life (http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov06/healthy.aspx), more happiness and more fulfilling relationships. The Oxford English Dictionary defines optimism as having "hopefulness and confidence about the future or successful outcome of something; a tendency to take a favourable or hopeful view." It is someone who sees setbacks as temporary, and good things in life to be prevalent. It is someone who believes that positive change is possible in themselves and others. And an optimist sees problems as individual occurrences, not the grand plan against them. Without optimism, individuals tend to look for the negative in all situations, finding all the reasons why something will go wrong and the flaw in any plan (yes, they love to quote “Murphy”).
The leading researcher on the topic of optimism and “positive psychology” is Martin Seligman. He runs the Authentic Happiness Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. At his website (http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/questionnaires.aspx) you can take several free assessments on your level of Optimism, Happiness and Gratitude.
In his book Learned Optimism Seligman says,
“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe that bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback or a challenge, that its causes are just confined to this one case.”
This highlights the common dynamic of pessimists who commonly point outward in their search for why things aren’t the way they want them to be. Instead of looking for their part in the problem, owning it and taking steps toward fixing the issue, they always find someone to blame. Instead of identifying their point of influence and leveraging their personal power, they waste loads of time and energy complaining about their issues. “Bad luck” lets them off the hook for taking action and personal responsibility. Pessimists unknowingly play the victim in life (http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs088/1100409827245/archive/1101690503429.html)
Seligman tested his theory with the hiring of new sales people at Met Life. It was a daring experiment: hire candidates who scored low on the company’s traditional hiring process but high in optimism. They tracked their results against a control group and they outsold the pessimists by 21 percent the first year, and by 57 percent the second year. The results included Met Life increasing its market share of the personal insurance market by 50%.
Tips on Increasing Your Optimism:
• Be mindful of your first reaction to assume the worst. Ask yourself, “What about this situation could work out well?”
• Catch yourself (or ask a trusted colleague) to catch you using negative language. Words such as “fat chance”, “don’t waste your breath”, “I have the worst luck”, “nothing will change” all reveal your pessimistic expectations and make you look like a downer.
• Find your happy place. Visualize your life in the future at its best, with your goals accomplished, your stressors removed, surrounded by the people who bring out the best in you.
• Don’t believe everything you think. Challenge yourself to change your thinking and you will change your behavior.
• Interview yourself when you anticipate the worst to happen. Ask: Why do I have such low expectations of this? What are the odds that the worst case scenario will actually happen? Are there actions I can take to mitigate any risk? What if the best outcome happened?
• Lose the pessimists in your life. Free yourself of relationships that bring out the worst in you, and make a date with an optimist. Good feelings and positive attitudes are contagious (just like the negative ones). Work to surround yourself in your business and personal life with people who make you feel strong, successful, valuable, energized, and happy.
• Leaders with optimism are the ones people want to work for. Light-hearted, positive, seeing the best in people, and confident are all strong leadership qualities. On the flip side, a leader cannot be seen as too optimistic or they appear out of touch with reality. Bosses who continually talk in prettied up press release-speak and relentlessly preach the company line quickly lose credibility, respect and performance from their people. If you’ve had an overly idealistic supervisor attempt to “motivate” you, then you know exactly how frustrating and demotivating unbalanced optimism can be.
As with all the EI skills, optimism must be at high, but appropriate, levels to be seen as genuine. Do an attitude check and ensure that you are not getting into a pattern of negative energy or constant complaining. No one wants to work with a buzz kill.
A pessimist has no motor. An optimist has no brakes.