Optimism is all about if the glass is half full or half empty, right?
Think again! It turns out that most people have been thinking about optimism completely wrong. So what exactly is it, how important is it and, most crucially, how can optimism be developed?
A Quick Optimism Test
Let’s start with a quick test. You must choose only one answer per question. If in doubt, answer the one that you think you would be most likely to think:
- You get lost driving to a friends house. Is this because:
- You missed your turn
- You friend gave you bad directions
- You run for election and win. Is this because:
- You devoted a lot of time and energy to campaigning
- You work hard at everything you do
- You fail an important exam. Is this because:
- You are not as smart as other people taking the exam
- You didn’t prepare well for it
The above questions are taken from a questionnaire by the leading authority on Optimism, Dr Martin Seligman. He has researched optimism for many years and is regarded as one of the most influential people in psychology.
Optimism, contrary to popular belief, is not how positive or confident you are. It is really more about how you explain past events that have happened to you. Do you view previous events as permanent or temporary? Are you the cause of your success/failure or is it down to someone else? Is a failure in one environment likely to lead to you failing in another?
Dr Martin Seligman’s book, Learned Helplessness, is a must read for all those involved in teaching or coaching. It details the multiple benefits that have been researched throughout the years on optimism, as well as offering advice on how to develop an optimistic mindset. The benefits of optimism include:
- See setbacks as temporary
- Increase performance
- Reduce stress
- Enhance confidence
- Protects against and helps manage mental illness
- More likely to engage in positive thinking
We may be born with differing natural optimism levels, but evidence suggests that it is a way of thinking that can be taught, learnt and developed. So, how can someone develop their optimistic thinking?
See setbacks as temporary – Failure at some stage is inevitable. After all, to err is human. But can we help students fail better? Research shows that by viewing setbacks as permanent, it makes you more likely to give up quickly. This is what psychologists call ‘learned helplessness’ as it leads to people disengaging from the task as they believe it doesn’t make a difference what they do. Instead, encourage students to view setbacks as a learning curve. This will help them gain from the experience and help them to come back better because of it.
Regain a sense of control – Asking yourself ‘what can I do to improve the situation?’ helps people stop focusing on previous mistakes or dwelling on factors they can’t control. This leads to a more solution-focused approach which promotes persistence instead of ruminating on the barriers they have come up against
Don’t over generalise – After a setback, it is tempting and easy to over-generalise and think that everyone and everything is against you. This is an unhelpful thought process. The ability to compartmentalise is key here. A setback in one aspect of your life does not make you a failure in others.
Acknowledge your own contribution – A pessimistic mindset tends to attribute success down to luck or other people performing worse than them. This can lead to people suffering from The Impostor Syndrome. You can help build your optimism and confidence by reflecting on what you did well and how you actively contributed to the success of the task.
Watch your words – How you talk to yourself has a big impact on how you think, feel and behave. Your self-talk is linked to your creativity, persistence, and ability to perform under pressure. Phrases to watch out for include “I will never”, “I always mess up” and “This happens every time”. Instead, try phrases like “I might be able to” and “I could try this”. For more advice on helpful self-talk sentences, see our blog on ‘The Language of a Growth Mindset’.
Shift your focus - Researchers have found that by saying 'Stop' straight after a negative thought has helped people to manage frustration, overcome nerves, sleep better and stop dwelling on worst case scenarios. You may not be able to control the first thing that pops into your head, but you can control the second. Saying 'stop' is a good strategy that allows you to proceed with more helpful thoughts.
Take a balanced approach - Regardless of if you succeed or fail, there are always things that you did well and things you can do to improve. This means not getting too low after a defeat or too high after a win. Having a consistent debriefing process should help. This provides a stable base from which to learn. What sort of questions can you ask yourself? This blog on ‘how to fail better’ offers a handy starting point.
If you liked this blog on how to be more optimistic, why not check out what we've written on 6 Ways That Failure Can Help for some more great tips.