Optimism has been defined as generalized expectancies for desirable future outcomes. I can be realistically optimistic and goal-directed, but not take on more than I can handle. I can maintain a hopeful attitude, and have a future orientation, imagine good outcomes and engage in future life planning. I can choose to pursue optimism, instead of pessimism.
Pessimists tend to think, “It’s all my fault. I mess up everything that I do and it is the story of my life.” Pessimists are more likely to mentally check out and put their head in the sand.
I can choose to pursue realistic optimism, instead of pessimism.
Realistic optimists have a habitual way of exploring events. They see the negative, but do not dwell on it, nor over generalize about the positive. They have the ability to size up a situation dispassionately, while still staying open to future possibilities and new ideas and experiences.
“The Pessimist complains about the wind;
The Optimist expects it to change; The Realistic Optimist adjusts the sails”
—William Arthur Ward
Optimists, as compared to pessimists, have better individual and interpersonal well-being, use more effective coping strategies, have better health and are better liked and supported, and make a higher salary. Optimism confers resilience to stressful events. Rather than cling to the past, optimists use the past as teaching lessons and become the future. They believe that the future is not something that just happens, but something they can help create. As the song goes in the musical South Pacific, I can learn to become a “cock-eyed optimist.”
Where do you fall on the dimension of optimism to pessimism and can you train yourself to think and act in ways that optimists do? It might not be easy at first to change from a pessimistic to an optimistic mindset, but the outcome is well worth the effort. Consider the following chart and determine where you fit.
- Expect good things to happen to them. Expect bad things to happen to them.
- See things in the best light. Tend to attribute negative events to personal and permanent factors (“This is out of my control.” “It is not going to get better.”), and are therefore less likely to take actions to change it.
- Bad stuff is time and context limited. (“I am going through a rough patch. I possess good and resourceful qualities I can use.”).
- Think that bad stuff is out of one’s own control and feel a lack of personal ability and resourcefulness to change things (“I’m such a loser.”).
- Focus less on the negative aspects of their experiences (distress and symptoms).
- Escape adversity by wishful thinking: drawn into temporary distractions that don’t help to solve the problem.
- Tend to attribute the causes of negative events to temporary, changeable and specific factors.
- Doubt that their goals can be attained and may withdraw effort, stop prematurely or may never really start. Less persistent.
- Expect good outcomes even when things are hard. Continue trying even when the going gets tough.
- More likely to “stick their head in the sand” and ignore threats to well-being.
- Engage in proactive (future-planning) coping. Use problem-solving coping when there is something to be done. More likely to seek out relevant information.
- Use passive and avoidant coping responses.
- Take active steps to ensure positive outcomes in the future. Work to prevent a stressor from arising.
- More likely to drop out of training and treatment programs.
- More likely to engage in exercise and make efforts to reduce risks, safeguarding their health. Do things to make good things happen.
People are more likely to reject someone who has a negative outlook and who expresses negative expectations.
- Work harder and more effectively on relationships resulting in a large, more supportive social network.
- More likely to give up and withdraw.
- Have decreased autonomic arousal, lower levels of anxiety and depression and respond more favorably to medical procedures.
- Tend to become more anxious and depressed.
Can optimism have drawbacks? Being an optimist may have a down-side. For example, optimists may undertake too many tasks and spread their resources too thin. Being an optimist may contribute to problem gambling where positive expectations and persistence may be counterproductive. Optimists are less likely to disengage from gambling – even after experiencing gambling losses. Optimists may refrain from providing constructive criticism and hold the “false hope” that things will improve on their own and undermine the motivation to seek improvements. Unfounded optimism is not helpful. Beware of the “Tyranny of positive attitudes.”
There is a need to be a realistic optimist. Remember that:
“When things get tough, the tough get going.”
How To: Nurture an Optimistic Outlook
- Identify and write down times in the past in which you were performing at your best. What did you do (and not do)? How did others react? How did that make you feel? What did you think (and not think)? Be specific.
- List your personal strengths. What do other folks see in you? Write these down and give specific examples. No fluff—just the hard facts.
- Keep a list of things you are grateful for—(see Action #30 and Seligman, 2006).