The Power of Optimism - Is Your Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?



What drives you? What does happiness mean to you? How do you look at obstacles, achievements…life?

We often tend to search for shortcuts to a good, comfortable, and happy life. We're trying to find those "10 steps to…" or a magic formula that will make our lives easier. Unfortunately, or better yet, fortunately, such things don't exist. As the Dalai Lama would say, “Happiness is not something ready-made.” We need to put effort into it - look inside ourselves, and rediscover our deepest thoughts and feelings towards the circumstances surrounding us.

With a more joyful outlook, we can enhance our well-being. It's up to us to decide whether we should make lemonade when life hands us lemons.

Pessimism vs. Optimism

The feeling of helplessness lies at the core of pessimism. Pessimists tend to believe that negative outcomes are bound to happen and that they don't have any control over them. The only thing they can do is 'close their eyes and wait for it to pass.' Optimists, on the other hand, view setbacks as temporary events that can be overcome. Rather than being down in the drums and giving up, they see failure as another challenge to conquer and learn from.

"The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity, the optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty." -- Winston Churchill

In his book about 'Learned optimism,' Seligman explains that the big difference between pessimists and optimists comes from their explanatory styles, or how they interpret the events that take place in their lives. This refers to the 3Ps or factors that influence how we understand our experiences: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.

Personalization - When things go south, pessimists are more likely to take the blame and think it's all their fault, personalizing the outcome. An optimist, however, will externalize, which means that they see the bad turn of events as a result of external circumstances.

Pervasiveness - When optimists fail, they don't let that influence their belief in their abilities. In contrast, pessimists are prone to catastrophizing, meaning if they failed once, they will never be able to succeed again.

Permanence - Optimists see downfalls as temporary and can quickly bounce back. In comparison, pessimists perceive adverse events as unchangeable and permanent. This is why they tend to give up when things get rough.

The way we think affects how we feel, and our feelings govern our actions or the lack thereof. We need to carefully observe and recognize our own thought patterns. Once we successfully distinguish rational from irrational thinking, we can end the vicious cycle of paralyzing train of negative thoughts, escape the feeling of helplessness, and start acting towards achieving our goals.

Can We Learn to Be Happy? 

Are we born optimists, or is it something we can learn? While being partially hereditary, research suggests that optimism is largely influenced by our childhood experiences, including parental love and warmth. However, positivity can be learned at any point in our lives. It’s a process of retraining the underlying thoughts that influence our behaviors. 

Seligman’s ABCDE model demonstrates how we can build optimism by recognizing and disputing our negative beliefs. It stands for:

Adversity: What event caused negative thoughts? - e.g., fighting with a friend;

Belief: What are our thoughts or interpretation of the event? - e.g., "I'm a terrible person, and I always will be;"

Consequence: How do we feel or behave because of those thoughts? - e.g., "I can't change who I am, so I won't even bother trying to make peace with my friend;"

Disputation: What examples of events can dispute or prove our beliefs wrong? - e.g., "Maybe my friend wasn't in the mood that day," or "They’re going through a rough patch;"

Energization: How does redirecting our thoughts inspire us to move forward? - e.g., "I will give it some time and reach out to my friend again."

We tend to blame 'A' for our 'C,' but it's actually 'B' that makes us feel or act the way we do. The ABCDE approach shows us that we have the power to choose how we will think about a particular situation, which means we can recreate our thinking patterns by reinforcing the positive and changing the negative ones.

However, the process of relearning our emotional behaviors is not easy. It requires practice, time, and exceptional effort. Unfortunately, we could say that pessimism is our default reaction that goes hand in hand with laziness. It's more convenient to think you're simply a bad company for your friend, and that there's no point in putting any further effort and trying to resolve the situation. Optimism, on the other hand, takes hard work and commitment.

“The basis of optimism does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory, but in the way you think about causes.” - Seligman

The Benefits of Thinking Like an Optimist

You probably know someone who always has a positive attitude and a smile on their face. Or are you an optimist yourself? Whether you are one or not, we can agree that optimists generally lead a more enjoyable life and are less stressed than most of our society.

When you focus on the good, the good comes back to you. Happiness comes with many benefits - more positive experiences, better health, and greater achievements.

Improved health. - Optimists are happier, and therefore, healthier. Studies show that optimism has a significant impact on our life span as well. Happy individuals can expect to live 7 - 10 years longer than average. They are more likely to engage in healthy habits, such as regular physical exercise, smart eating choices, and good sleep, which lead to less anxiety and depression, and decreased risk of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and many others.

Higher motivation and performance. - Having a positive attitude can help maintain motivation when pursuing goals. Optimists don't give up and are not afraid of failure. Even if they fail, they are willing to push forward and put in extra effort to get where they want to be. For them, mistakes and failures are just one more lesson and a part of becoming better and wiser.

Greater achievements. - Optimists tend to be more successful because of their ability to see good in every challenge they face. Thanks to their self-confidence, they can embrace every challenge, knowing they have enough strength to overcome them. Seligman, the father of positive psychology, researched optimism levels of Metropolitan Life Insurance agents in 1985. He introduced an optimism test to their staff screening process. At that time, Met Life was short on employees, and they hired a few who scored below the cut-off point. Two years later, the optimistic employees had sold 30% more than their peers.

Having all of this in mind, it is also important to note that being optimistic doesn’t mean escaping negative feelings and experiences at any cost. While they might not be pleasant, they teach us how to deal with problems and develop as human beings.

The most encouraging thing about optimism is that it is a skill that can be learned at any point in life. So, take a look around you and see the beauty. Think about everything you can be grateful for - everything and everyone that brings you joy, laughter, and strength. Beautiful things happen all the time; the question is - are we able to see them?

“You’ll never find a rainbow if you’re looking down.” - Charlie Chaplin

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