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How to be More Optimistic (& Optimisms Darker Side)

What is optimism?

According to the American Psychological Association, optimism is defined as ones hope and confidence 'that good things will happen and that people’s wishes or aims will ultimately be fulfilled'.

In her book 'The How of Happiness', psychology Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky distinguishes between three types of optimism:

  • Big optimism: The broad feeling that things are going well, and this is a good time to be alive.

  • Little optimism: Optimism about specific, day-to-day circumstances – you’ll pass the test or the bus will be on time.

  • Very small optimism: The less positive but still comforting belief that you’ll get through this day or this year.

So we can assume that optimists are people who anticipate broadly positive outcomes, whether by chance or through perseverance and effort, and who are confident of achieving desired goals.

What are the benefits of optimism?

You might be thinking, 'why should I care about optimism?' or wonder if it is just a pollyanna-ish way of travelling through life. But research shows that there are many benefits to optimism, including:

1. Better Health

Several studies have shown higher levels of optimism provide a kind of buffering effect against health-related distress in patients undergoing cancer treatments, as well as greater awareness of health indicators and how to stay healthy. They are also more likely to seek practical support, actively tackle negative mindset and use coping methods to improve their situation. If that isn't enough, optimists are less likely to develop high blood pressure, heart disease or suffer from stress-induced immune conditions.

2. Improved Motivation, Performance & Career Success

At work, optimism has been linked to intrinsic motivation to work harder, greater resilience during stressful circumstances, and an increase in goal-focused behaviour. It has also been shown to contribute to employees' creativity, ability to problem solve and persevere, belief in their ability to make effective decisions; and to their happiness in workplace and overall wellbeing.

Possibly because of these benefits, optimism has also been linked to career success; notably a 31% higher sales performance by optimists compared to pessimists in a study by Martin Seligman in his book Learned Optimism. In their second year, those optimists did 57% better than their pessimistic colleagues, suggesting optimism has a more significant role than sales technique.

I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.

Winston Churchill

How can I increase optimism?

Despite many peoples belief that they are either glass half-empty or glass half-full, positive psychology takes a different view. It surmises that because optimism is driven by how we think about and interpret the world and our place in it, we can learn to be more optimistic.

This means that the glass is actually re-fillable.

Learned optimism involves the development of greater self-awareness and the ability to identify and challenge automatic negative thoughts. Various situations, thoughts and emotions can trigger common cognitive traps such as catastrophising, polarised thinking and mind-reading.

If they remain unrecognised and unchallenged, these negative thoughts can become a downward spiral that increases pessimism and reduces hope and optimism. You can learn more about the 16 most Common Automatic Negative Thoughts and how to challenge them in my free download 'Free Your Thoughts' here.

One way of increasing optimism is learning more about these cognitive distortions and challenging them using Ellis's ABC technique.

A = Activating event - E.g. You have had a big argument with your partner.

B = Beliefs & thoughts - You might think 'They don't love me.' 'I bet no one else argues as much as us.'

C = Consequences (Behaviours and emotions) - These thoughts make you feel sadness, worry, fear for the future, a knot in your stomach, and maybe you change your behaviour around the person.

The trick is to start with A, then C and then identify the thoughts and beliefs (B) that got you from A to C. By working out the type of thought (catastrophising and generalising in the examples) you can start to work out how much you believe the thought by examining the evidence.

You can also increase optimism by regularly tapping into your inner optimist and having a go at my 3 - 2 - 1 technique. All you have to do is write down (or talk about) three good things that have happened, two things you are grateful for, and one thing you are proud of (or one strength you have used) each day. This is a great conversation starter over dinner in the evening and is perfect to help young people develop optimism and positivity too.

What is the dark side of optimism?

Whilst I am a huge advocate of optimism, I do not suggest that we all dance through life blindly hoping everything will be alright if we believe enough.

In fact there is a danger in persistently pursuing optimism and that comes in the form of optimism bias and toxic positivity (AKA unrealistic optimism).

Put simply, the ​optimism bias is a mistaken belief that our chances of experiencing negative life events are lower and our chances of experiencing positive life events are higher than those of people we know.

It can lead to poor decision making and increased risky behaviour, whether that's making poor health choices, ignoring safety signs, not wearing sunscreen or not saving for a rainy day. People experiencing optimism bias never think it will happen to them.

Toxic positivity occurs when someone refuses to let themselves be anything other than happy and positive, regardless of the situation. These people often deny, minimise and supress negative emotions, leading to an unhealthy emotional state. By pushing away normal transient feelings like sadness, jealousy, anger and pain they actually increase more intense and damaging emotions like guilt, shame and inadequacy.

In addition, judging yourself or shaming others for expressing normal human emotions, and using positive quotes or saying 'everything's fine' to minimise negative experiences can lead to a build up of emotional pressure, which can require extensive therapy to resolve.

How can I find emotional balance?

I am a realist and understand that life, like our emotions, has its ups and downs and that it is important we don't get too hung up on being happy 100% of the time - anger has its place, so too does sadness and fear.

Emotions play an important role in helping us make sense of what is going on in our lives and in communicating this to the people around us. For example, feeling sad about leaving a place of work means that it was meaningful to you. Telling a loved one you feel sad about leaving even though you are happy about your decision, invites them to offer you comfort.

You need to understand and accept both positive and negative emotions to experience the whole range of human experience. Focusing on only one side - be it positive or negative - only tells half the story.

Finding balance here is important. That comes from taking action to increase self-awareness and self-acceptance of your emotions, but also asks that you examine the thoughts behind them and check them for bias. Are you stuck in a negative thought trap? Or experiencing optimistic bias and toxic positivity?

Focus on the language you use and listen to the emotions other people are expressing through their words and actions too. Instead of telling someone else that 'everything's fine' practise being more open and authentic with your feelings. It requires you to become comfortable feeling slightly emotionally vulnerable, but it does allow you to fully experience the present without judging your feelings.

It also invites others to be more open with you, which can improve relationships, communication and belonging. Something we all strive for.

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