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Pollyanna has a point: The benefits of a positive mindset

Posted by Deb Muoio

Feb 4, 2014 2:11:00 PM


There are some benefits to having a cynical view of life. As Pulitzer-Prize winner George F. Will put it, “The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised.” Research by Gibson and Sanbonmatsu (2004) suggests that pessimists may be better gamblers, as optimists are more likely to keep trying to win in spite of their losses, while their more negative counterparts will cut their losses and walk away. Moreover, Dr. Julie Norem, in her book The Positive Power of Negative Thinking highlights the benefits of “defensive pessimism” in contrast to “hopeless pessimism.” People who practice the former will anticipate all the things that can go wrong in their pursuit of a goal, but will still move forward with a certain degree of confidence once they feel they have sufficiently prepared and planned for potential obstacles. It is the latter type of pessimism that is more likely to be linked to depression. However, before any pessimists reading this offer a sarcastically laced “I told you so,” there are several benefits to an optimistic attitude that cannot be ignored.

Optimistic people are more satisfied with their relationships, both in their personal and professional life, are more comfortable taking risks, and tend to enjoy better emotional, psychological, and physical health. Optimists are also better at coping with stressful situations, and are more confident during a crisis.

There’s no doubt that optimism can have a positive impact on our lives (pun intended). Psychologists like Martin Seligman have dedicated decades of research to what is known today as “Positive Psychology.” However, it’s important to truly understand what “optimism” really means. It’s not like walking through a world of pink, puffy clouds, puppy dogs, and rainbows, and ignoring all the bad things in life. Healthy optimists are those who accept their weaknesses and strengths, building on the latter and developing the former. They choose to be hopeful for the future, and even if things do not turn out as expected; they try to find the lesson to be learned and move on. It’s the extreme, blind optimists, who believe that nothing can go wrong - and are thus not fully prepared for obstacles and failures - that end up with a rude awakening.

In fact, we did find people who possess this sense of “invincibility” in our research study, with 63% of them being younger than 25 (this could be partly the famed invincibility complex so often seen in teenagers). These extreme optimists are characterized as very confident, resilient against stress, and rated themselves as being in good physical health. The downside: our analyses also reveal that only 27% of the people in this group wear a seat-belt when in a car, compared to 69% for the rest of our sample. Clearly, a positive attitude with a healthy dose of common sense is the ideal.

Here are some tips on developing a healthy level of optimism:

  • Don't try to repress negative thoughts. Let them sink in, but don't leave it at that - milk them for relevant information. How do you really feel about the situation you are thinking so negatively about? Why do you feel that way? Does it really merit such a strong reaction? Could your outlook have an influence on how things are turning out? How could you change your perspective? If, for example, you are frustrated with your work situation, give yourself an opportunity to "vent" internally. Once you get all the negativity out of your system, however, take a deeper look and see what the real issues are. If you are feeling under-appreciated, what action can you take to feel better? Could you talk to your boss, learn to take it less personally, or find other ways to get the recognition you crave? Make a solid plan to either change or deal with your situation.
  • Avoid self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe you will fail, chances are high that you will. Expect the worst from people and that's likely what you will get. Belief is a powerful thing, and if you let yourself focus on the bad, you're not creating the right conditions for the good to come your way. If you want to succeed, you need to put yourself in the right mindset. “Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” explains author Howard Zinn. “It reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act.”
  • Refuse to be a victim. Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, renowned author and noted expert on positive psychology, states that the feeling of being a victim leads to learned helplessness. If you blame your problems on other people or circumstances, you will avoid taking personal responsibility for your life. While it may be true that there are things beyond your control, the majority of what happens in your life is up to YOU. Life may throw you many curveballs, but it is you who decides how you'll react to them.
  • Practice TSE. Pessimists see problems as permanent, pervasive and personal. Optimists, on the other hand, view unpleasant events as temporary, specific, and external (TSE). Imagine, for example, a friend is upset with you for a comment you made. Instead of thinking "I've lost that friendship forever" (permanent), tell yourself that you will talk to him/her and clear it up, and in time he/she will probably see that you are sincere in your apology (temporary). Replace your reaction that you "always screw up good friendships" (pervasive) with "I shouldn't have made that comment, but I am a good friend" (specific). Lastly, avoid dwelling on a thought like "I am an awful person" (personal). Instead, tell yourself "I've hurt my friend's feelings and should remedy that" (external).

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Topics: Employee Attitude, Goal Achievement, Personality Assessment, Motivation, Emotional Intelligence, Coaching

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