The science of optimism
In this post I’m exploring optimism – the benefits and how to get them. My daughter reeled off a string of things that have gone well for her recently and it got me thinking about the genetic and learned aspects of optimism. The work of psychologist Martin Seligman and others have shown an optimistic thinking style can be learned, although it requires long-term sustained effort. My daughter could equally have been the stimulus for a post on gratitude, something I’ve covered a couple of times in the last few years. Incidentally, if you’re a parent you might be interested in the research that shows we over-estimate how optimistic our children are.
What? A definition
Optimism isn’t simply thinking positively. According to Professor Seligman, optimism relates to the way you think about setbacks and victories. People with an optimistic explanatory style see good events as personal, pervasive and permanent. That is, the good thing that happened due at least in part because of me (it wasn’t dumb luck), it will have a positive effect on other parts of my life and it’s likely to continue to be so. Optimists view setbacks as external, limited and transient. The reverse is true for people with a pessimistic explanatory style as Seligman says, “…the pessimistic person shrugs victory off and says ‘I didn’t do it, it’s just this one situation and it’s only going to help me in this one domain.’”
Why? The benefits
I’m putting optimism under the spotlight as it comes with a number of benefits which may be useful to you when you mull over feedback; consider when and how to seek out career opportunities; ponder whether to take action on a given priority in your life; try to make sense of a particular relationship and a whole host of other situations where our explanatory style impacts on what we do next. Evidence-based benefits include:
- Increased coping skills (Scheier, Weintraub and Carver, 1986)
- Resilience when faced with stressful life events (Ellicott et al, 1990)
- Greater persistence, as demonstrated in an educational setting (Solberg Nes et al, 2009)
- Better relationships and even higher incomes (Segerstrom, 2007)
How? Developing an optimistic explanatory style
Research points to shifting to an optimistic explanatory style as being achievable but tough. These practical exercises are couched in empiric data and need to be practised regularly to be effective.
- The ‘What Went Well’ exercise – every day, make a note of three things that went well, why they happened and how these things could have a positive knock-on effect. Writing, rather than just thinking about them, causes us to linger for longer on the experiences which may be an aid to encoding them and therefore retrieving them from memory when we need them.
- When you have a pessimistic thought (in response to a ‘good’ thing this means believing it is external, limited and transient; in response to a setback this means believing it is personal, pervasive and permanent) try actively refuting it by looking for evidence that would automatically spring to mind for someone with a naturally optimistic explanatory style. This means considering how a good event could be due to you, how you can replicate it and how it can positively affect another area of your life. For a ‘bad’ event this means drawing your attention to why this isn’t personal, how it’s unlikely to impact another area of your life (perhaps by remembering past times where a ‘bad’ event was contained) and how it will pass.
- Make use of your strengths. We’re more energised and our performance higher when we spend time using skills we’re good at, which is likely to put us in a state of mind of seeing how good things are indeed at least in part due to us, replicable and likely to enhance other parts of our lives. Read the view from a talented woman I did a strengths debrief session with recently. If you’re curious to know more about the evidence base for the positive impact of strengths profiling and debriefing do be in touch and I can send you a paper on it.
- Try positively reframing an event you respond pessimistically to. Reframing is a psychological term for ‘re-interpreting’ your beliefs about an event or situation. Can you see things in a different way? What other more optimistic explanations could there be? In a study by Anthoni et al (2001), women newly diagnosed with non-metastic breast cancer underwent training in stress management techniques, one of which was positive reframing. This proved to increase their optimism over time compared to a control group.
What are you taking away?
Optimists experience benefits. It’s possible to develop a more optimistic explanatory style to reap those plus points. You’ve read four ways to help you develop a more optimistic way of explaining the triumphs and setbacks you experience. You might like to share these pearls with a friend or colleague today or leave a comment below.
What are you thinking about?
I’m curious to know a little about what’s on your mind to inform future editions of my Flourishing Female columns. Click here to spend two minutes anonymously sharing three reflections on your strengths and struggles – thinking about them might take you to an optimistic place.