Are you an optimist or pessimist?
The optimist / pessimist contrast is usually the only contact many of us have had with the concept of optimism. Optimism by itself, is a fascinating concept and there is a growing body of research showing that this is largely genetic and then shaped further by early experiences and upbringing – so we’re optimists or pessimists from a young age.
Yet there is a difference between being an optimist and thinking optimistically – and we can all benefit greatly from choosing to think more optimistically, some of the time.
Martin Seligman is world famous for his work on depression, happiness, wellbeing and optimism. He points out as a result of thousands of examples from therapy and experimentation that regardless of our natural style (more or less optimistic), we can develop our thinking. And that change in thinking leads to both lower chances of getting depressed and faster recovery time if we do feel depressed.
So what can we do? It all comes down to how we explain to ourselves and others “good” and “bad” events. Life happens – it’s how we think about those events that makes the difference to our wellbeing.
When good, great, pleasing things happen, it is better for our health and wellbeing to explain those things as personal, permanent and pervasive. This is optimistic thinking. An example would be:
“That workshop went so well because I did a great job. And I always do a great job so tomorrow will be just as good. And I’m not just good at this, I’m good at other things too – my strengths apply across situations.”
As opposed to: “it was a fluke the workshop went well, the group were just really nice. I won’t be that lucky tomorrow. And just because that workshop went well, that doesn’t make up for the fact that I’m useless at most other things.”
When sad, upsetting, bad things happen, it is better for our health and wellbeing to do the opposite. Let’s explain those things as impersonal, temporary and specific. This is optimistic thinking. An example would be:
“My marriage is not going well because of current circumstances, I don’t think it’s all down to me. This is just a bad time, things will get better. And just because the marriage isn’t so great right now, I’m still able to do great at my work, hobbies and relationships with other people.”
As opposed to: “It’s all my fault, I’m ruining my marriage. This is permanent, it’s never going to get any better. How can I do anything else well, I am a failure at everything.”
So the research shows it, more optimistic thinking is better for our health, wellbeing and overall success. It’s not about thinking positive all the time – how would we get on if we had no risk management specialists planning for the worst?! This is about us having a choice in each situation, and choosing at times to think more optimistically for our wellbeing and happiness.