Applying caution to optimism
I’d like to say I’m a pretty optimistic person, I like to look at the positives in a situation, I find gratitude is exceptionally powerful in my ability to remain resilient in challenging times. However, I have to apply caution to my optimism. I do not ever want to invalidate another persons experience by offering them an optimistic alternative view.
Often, we don’t know what other people are experiencing and an empathic alliance is what people need, rather than forcing someone to look for unicorns and rainbows. However, optimism isn’t always sickening positivity and I wanted to have a look at what we know about it and how to cultivate it to your advantage.
What is optimism?
Optimism is defined as a mental attitude reflecting hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something (Oxford Dictionary), i.e. Is the glass half full or half empty? This question epitomises the definition of optimism, those who view the glass as half full would be viewed as optimistic.
Optimism doesn’t have to mean engaging in wishful thinking, it can be a way of looking at the world and viewing yourself as responsible for areas of your life that are going well. This optimistic view on life gives more personal agency to yourself for positive events, creating a healthier outlook.
Benefits of optimism
Optimists have been found to live longer than those perceived as pessimistic, they also tend to be less susceptible to the negative effects of illness, fatigue and depression (Andersson, 1996).Optimists are likely to cope better with stressful situations and tend to take more direct action to solve these problems, by viewing the situation as temporary where things are likely to get better. (Fox, 2012).
Tips to cultivate optimism
- The ‘best possible self’ exercise – This exercise involves taking 15 minutes every day to write an ideal future 1-10 years from now with everything going as well as possible, being specific and optimistic. This has been found to increase positive emotions, help identify goals and feel more control in our lives.
- Trying on a ‘positive lens’ – making a conscious effort to challenge yourself to try and think of something positive in every situation, this small effort has been found to train our brains to alter our responses to negative experiences to cope better (Davidson, 2003).
- Keep a gratitude diary – At the end of each day writing down and focusing on all the things that had gone right and have made you happy that day can be a good way to feel more grateful for the small things. This can be something as little as the car starting or someone making you smile.
- Cultivate positivity to others – Making other people feel positive has found to have lasting effects on your own life, making you feel more positive and optimistic (Lambert et al, 2012). Share positive feedback with someone, compliment a person at work or tell someone close to you how much you appreciate them! Whilst doing this don’t forget to bestow positivity on yourself – praise yourself and think of all the good things from your day.
Being optimistic but remaining realistic
Although optimism can have various benefits for both physical and mental health, individuals with an unrealistic belief that the future will only contain positive events can lead them to take unnecessary risks with both their health and finance.
Being optimistic is not always easy and research suggests it may not always be the best strategy. It suggests that by coupling optimism with a small dose of realism individuals can build resilience and encourage individuals to achieve their goals (Schneider, 2001).
Individuals who try to always be optimistic can sometimes dismiss their real emotions, failing to take time out to understand these emotions (Whitbourne, 2010). By adjusting coping methods that take into account the reality of situations, individuals can be both optimistic and realistic.
Realistic optimism is a way to remain optimistic whilst also being realistic. Realistic optimism involves hoping for positive outcomes by setting achievable goals and working towards the desired outcome (Schneider, 2001). These people tend to hold a positive outlook on life but within the restraints of what they know to be realistic in their world (Action for Happiness). Understanding that the road ahead may be rocky but still will lead to success is an important outlook for a realistic optimist and means that they tend to better deal with problems before they arise and persist longer in the face of difficulty (Halvorson, 2011).