I love Henry Ford’s quote “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t…either way, you are right”, it sums up so well the power our thinking has to our well-being.  How we think has powerful ramifications to how we show up in relationships, as parents, as spouses and as leaders, and, how healthy we are physically and emotionally.  At a more micro level it has to do with our perspective on Optimism.

What is Optimism and Why is it Important? 

According to the Multi-Health Systems (MHS) Emotional Intelligence model Optimism is an emotional intelligence skill.  We don’t usually think of optimism as a skill much less a survival skill.  Consider individuals who are survivors – cancer, war, wilderness, etc. – and you will find a common thread of optimism.

Think about every day decisions, goals and events in your life, you generally have two ways to respond, you can:

  • Resist the situation
  • Support the situation

The first option is pessimism, where you see the situation as incompatible.  The fear is usually if the situation changes, the effect will be unpredictable and most likely “bad”.  The second option is optimism; you see the situation as an opportunity that will have a positive effect on your situation.  With optimism you are willing to explore the situation, even if you don’t understand it.

According to the article Why Optimism is the Ultimate Survival Skill there is a scale of beliefs as it relates to optimism.

  • Cynicism – “Everything is bad, doomed, and untrustworthy.”
  • Pessimism – “Things are likely to have negative results.”
  • Realism – “Things just are what they are.”
  • Optimism – “Things are likely to have positive results.”
  • Idealism – “Everything will work out brilliantly.”

As you consider these five factors you might think idealism is the best option.  However, idealists tend to be overly and solely focused on the positive attributes and usually do not realize or address potential problems. 

Realists would also seem like a good position, however many of us are not good at “reality testing” situations.  We tend to err on the side of either being more negative than needed or seeing what we hope or want to see which may not be realistic. 

Cynics and pessimists are not necessarily bad positions; these two factors can alert us to danger and suspect behavior and motives.  The problem lies in the fact most individuals who hold these positions see danger everywhere, expect problems and assume things will not work out or will go bad. 

Optimism is the belief in the opportunity; it is having the viewpoint of a potential positive outcome.  With optimism you see what “could be”, you look for the positive, constructive and beneficial options of the situation.  Optimistic outcomes allow us to be more productive and healthy.

Where do you fall on the scale….are your thoughts as optimistic as you’d like them to be? Do you tell yourself you are not a good mom, documenting in your mind all the traits you wish you could change about yourself, playing over and over the thoughtless comment you made to your spouse, telling yourself you won’t get the promotion/job? 

You may think, well yes, I say those things but only to myself – to everyone else I am a fortress of optimistic thinking – no one knows what goes on inside my head.  So I am good.  Well….probably not!  Being an optimist starts with what you tell yourself, which translates into how you see the world and lastly operationalizes itself into how you show up and how you support others.

The Optimist Advantage

Lowers Anxiety and Stress – Optimistic thinking produces a lower stress and anxiety level.  Optimists look for opportunity rather than trouble and do not get stuck in the bad of a situation.  According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, college students who had primarily positive thoughts during their first semester at college had significantly lower stress.

Lowers Blood Pressure – Reduced stress oftentimes results in lower blood pressure and being optimistic has a direct effect on your blood pressure according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Self Care Carver, Scheier, and Segerstrom found that optimistic thinkers tend to be more likely to take care of themselves personally.  Individuals with optimistic thinking are more likely to take better care of themselves in terms of diet, exercise, sleep, safe sex, etc.  This translates into better self-regard and a stronger ability to take care of others in your life without negative consequences to your well-being. 

Staying Youthful – Looking for the fountain of youth?  Look no further than your optimistic attitude! A study conducted at University College London found positive thoughts are linked with “healthy aging.”  Those who were more optimistic were associated with a more youthful lifestyle as aging occurred.

High Performance – Successful elite athletes focus on both their physical and mental skill.  One mental skill necessary in athletics and life is optimism. According to a study published in the Journal of Sport Behavior, thinking positively can improve your performance.

Participants were asked to complete a dart-throwing task. Those who actively thought positively performed significantly better than those who did not think positively.  Negative and pessimistic thinking sets you up for failure whether in sports or life.  Your thinking and then your words are so important to what you can/cannot achieve.  If you go into a meeting or conversation thinking you will get tongue-tied and forget your content you will absolutely do it.  Conversely, if you go into that same situation with confidence you will speak fluently and show up as the expert with your content you will absolutely do it! 

When you are negative versus optimistic you become your own enemy.  When you change your thoughts you change you behavior.  Optimistic individuals have a positive self-regard for themselves, they are mentally tough, and oftentimes you can see this in their physical demeanor  – they are comfortably confidently and relationally engaging.  In the article “The Incredible Power of Self Talk,” Jim Jensen compares our thinking to a ship’s captain and crew.  The captain is your conscious and the crew is your subconscious.  You can control the “orders,” (your conscious) but remember that the “crew” (subconscious) will carry them out as you have stated in the “order”.  So if you tell yourself you will be a failure in your next conversation then your subconscious will make it happen.

So What Can We Do to be Optimistic?

Change the Dialogue – Pay attention to the things you say to yourself (and to others) as well as what you say about yourself.  Become more engaged in the thoughts you say to yourself in tough situations, oftentimes you are not even aware of the negative thoughts you produce.  Set aside a few days or a week and write down what you say to yourself and see where you are on the positive/negative scale.  Work on making your internal dialogue more positive and optimistic. 

Reframe – If your internal dialogue is not where you want it in terms of being optimistic then reframe your dialogue.  Instead of saying, “I will never be able to run a 5K” reframe your thinking to “I will be able to run a 5K, I will start with run/walking a mile.”  Once that is achieved, reframe again to “I will run one mile and run/walk two miles”.  Another example of reframing is “I am not good at math” to “I am not good at math, yet”.  That small but powerful word “yet” conveys the expectation of achievement.

Triggers – look for triggering events or situations that decrease your optimism.  When you are micromanaged does it cause you to think less positively about yourself and your skills, what about failure – do you frame it up as a learning experience or do you see it through the frame of negativity and how do you handle shame – do you deal with it head on or do you hide it and berate yourself with your internal dialogue?  Knowing our triggers and having a more optimistic, alternative manner of handling the situation is important.

Accountability and Support – According to Muffy Davis, Paralympic bronze and silver medalist in skiing and three time gold medalist in hand cycling one of the most important parts of the recovery from her accident and subsequent success in the Paralympics was her support system.  A network of friends, a mentor, a coach or a trusted advisor will help you achieve the change and be more successful with your internal dialogue.  The opportunity to talk and share the process with others who will support you in being accountable and will make the process much easier.

Helping Others Be More Optimistic

Now that you understand the benefits and strategies of an optimistic internal dialogue consider how you operationalize this thinking with others as care givers and leaders.  My bias is toward my children, I have a firm belief if we were more vigilant in teaching this at home I would be out of a job because adults and leaders would already have these skills!  Lets consider a few strategies for helping others become optimistic.

Talk Optimistically – one of the greatest gifts you can give those around you is the skill of optimism.  Help your kids and others learn to think from the “optimistic opportunity” perspective.  When they tell you they are not good at Math, help them understand they are not good “yet” and talk about the options they have for getting better and how you will support them

Help Others Reframe – earlier we discussed reframing your perspective, now you help others reframe their perspective.  Ask what other options, alternatives or ways of thinking they could employ in this situation to be successful.  Help move them away from assumptions or beliefs that are limiting or false.

Be Supportive – look for ways to support others in seeing the “optimistic opportunity” – resist the urge to just tell them, support them in finding it for themselves, thus helping them learn sustainable life strategies.

Find Your Pony – Jason Goldberg of MEometryTV talks about optimism and pessimism in this video link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGk_YbnLk10

He tells the story of two twins, one who is pessimistic and the other who is optimistic.  On their birthday the dad gives the pessimistic twin a room full of toys, to which he begins to cry and complains to his dad about his friends being jealous, having to read directions, toys breaking, etc.  The optimistic twin gets a room full of manure, to which he begins to jump with joy, dance in the manure and cry out with delight “there must be a pony in here somewhere”.  Our perspective, the silver lining, the opportunity in the midst of defeat is the type of thinking key to surviving what life throws at us.  Help those in your circle of influence “find the pony” even in the worst of situations. 

Remember to look for the optimistic opportunity, and help others see it too!  When you are able to see the “optimistic opportunity” you have hope, you are motivated and you develop those ever-important skills of grit and resilience. 

Interested in learning more contact Trigena trigena@me.com or 801.915.4046. 

Referenced Articles

The Importance of Optimism: How to Think Positive Thoughts – http://inspiyr.com/think-positive-thoughts/Why Optimism is the Ultimate Survival Skill http://thephenomenalexperience.com/content/why-optimism-is-the-ultimate-survival-skill