The Complete Guide to Optimism
Being a history student, I have often read in-depth (or so I thought) about previous difficult, trying times in human history. But, nothing prepares you for actually experiencing it. Considering the scale and spread of corona virus, I think it is safe to say it is a period that will soon find it’s way into history books and we will also someday be able to look back at it wistfully, in the calm knowledge that we survived it. However, till the time we reach that destination, the journey comes with more than it’s fair share of fear and anxiety. Where does optimism come in all of this, you ask? In my mind, optimism is probably the only small weapon in our arsenal that can help us through long stretched out days of fighting this contagion.
What is optimism?
By habit, I turned to Wikipedia to provide me with a bland starting point to my exploration of optimism. As always, it didn’t disappoint:
Optimism is a mental attitude reflecting a belief or hope that the outcome of some specific endeavor, or outcomes in general, will be positive, favorable, and desirable.– Wikipedia
Optimism is indeed a mindset which helps us give a positive spin to most things in life, whether our controllable or not and whether in the past, present or future. I think you would have heard the half glass example enough number of times, so I am going to skip right over it.
While Positive Psychology identifies 8 types of optimism, I will go as per Wikipedia to talk about two major kinds:
1. Dispositional optimism
In this case, the person looks at the future and assumes only bright and positive prospects. Essentially it is a forward looking branch of optimism. In some ways, it can derive from the past. For instance, my mother has a favourite saying which I often try to imbibe in my attitude: jo hota hai ache ke liye hota hai (whatever happens, happens for a good reason). In this case, rose coloured glasses are worn to peer into the past or present circumstances and assume that the future is as rosy as the glasses.
2. Attributional optimism
In this case, the optimism often merges with self confidence and an internal locus of control. Confused? Well, with this type of optimism a person looks at bad outcomes and gives them much less attention or mind share than the good outcomes, choosing to credit his or her own abilities for the latter. While in this one, there is a risk of overlooking other favorable circumstances which might have tipped the scales in the person’s favor, the selective focus and attention on good outcomes and not mulling over the bad ones is a definite good-to-have trait.
Benefits of optimism
The benefits of optimism have long been researched and are well acknowledged. Some of the most important ones being:
1. Stress management
What would be some of the traits you would typify as stress? Mulling and focussing over a bad outcome? Visualising all possible ways for some thing to go wrong? Optimism pretty much helps invert that curve.
2. Better physical and emotional health
While you might readily agree with me on the bit about emotional health, chances are you could question the link between optimism and bodily good health. Don’t listen to me. Check out this detailed article by Harvard Medical school talking about the myriad physiological health benefits of optimism ranging from blood pressure control to heart disease and overall health.
3. Resilience to persevere
Perseverance or the skill of trying something repeatedly, despite the challenges, is what it can take in our bid to get something done. Perseverance can come only when you maintain that things will turn around or that the reason to keep going on is a different, more favourable result.
4. Increases risk appetite
The top most barrier to taking any risk is a fear of failure. That fear is much reduced when you tilt more towards the idea of things turning out well leading to an overall higher risk appetite.
Risk of optimism
As my father often likes to point out: “Excess of even a good thing is bad!”. This truism holds true for optimism as well. There is a risk and you can indeed be too optimistic for your own good.
1. Optimism bias
When you are too optimistic, it can lead to underplaying the risk and being fool hardy. A lot of investors are known to act under the influence of an optimism bias. Oh sure so many real estate funds might have collapsed and not been able to repay even the principal amount, but this one is different and it can’t happen to me. Or for instance, not belting up while travelling in the merry hope that your optimism makes you invincible or because you have always been safe whenever you travelled. Optimism surely doesn’t mean letting your guard down or discarding any and every principal of risk management.
2. Over confidence
In their optimism, people very well end up forgetting the role luck often plays in getting us to where we do. In most instances, work will take you far but it is that icing of being in the right place at the right time that often really tips the scale. Be optimistic about your role in good outcomes, while being realistic in your attribution to the luck factor or the generosity and role played by other people.
Some people mistake optimism to equate it to positively inclined inaction. While being optimistic, you could very well believe that you are going to ace an upcoming exam but without putting in the appropriate effort, the probability is quite low. The variety of optimism that fuels us to action is the one you want to be targeting.
Unrealistically crazy high levels of optimism can take one to hellish paths from where it really doesn’t take much time to come crashing down. What I am instead recommending is a healthy sprinkling of upbeat positivity as we traverse the humdrum, hopeless things happening all around us.
How to cultivate optimism in your daily life
The level of inherent optimism or pessimism is determined to some extent by our genetic make up. But, there is enough research to show that nature and nurture are fairly balanced in the endeavor of raising your optimism barometer. In fact, check out this cool quote I found:
Learned Optimism is a concept from Positive Psychology’s founding father, Martin Seligman, which argues that we can cultivate a positive perspective.–Positive Psychology
Learned optimism, eh? Let the learning begin with these 5 steps that I have personally found very useful
1. Birds of a feather
Trying to be optimistic while being surrounded by chronically pessimistic people is like running on a hamster wheel – sure you are trying your best but really getting nowhere. Scan your peer group and the people you spend maximum time with. Recall your conversations and the direction to which most of them head. Do they end up giving your mood a boost and a warm happy feeling of human interaction or do you end up feeling the blues? Keep the former even closer and as for the latter, they are definitely not your stairway to optimism
2. Turn off the news
Yes I am well aware of what I am saying even in these times of Corona, probably even more so in these times of Corona. One night just before going off to sleep, I started googling news specific to the top 5 countries affected. Suffice it to say, I was more depressed and gloomy by the minute. More importantly, a lot of the news sells on the sensationalism that they are able to create. Even before this virus, if one scanned any newspaper, they were bound to notice the predominantly dark nature of most of the news splashed in the initial few pages. For some things in life, we could take vital cues from ostriches.
3. Let go of the uncontrollable and work on the controllable
To really hone your optimism bone, figure how to be able to slice between the controllable and the uncontrollable. Stop fretting about things not under your control – the weather, a recruiter’s decision or the movement of the stock markets. Rather, as you hope for the best, work only on your controllables – being prepared for the weather, giving your best shot to an interview or fund selection. As another example, having a bad boss is not your controllable. But, looking out and pulling all stops to get a new job or an internal team change most definitely is.
While there are some people who believe gratitude is over rated, in my experience practicing gratitude has been like a shining beacon of light, especially on dreary days that can otherwise take you down. Gratitude helps remind you of so many other things going right in your life, that reducing focus on something immediately unfavorable comes much easier.
5. Turn up your creative juices
Believe it or not, creativity comes very handy especially in the initial stages of optimism cultivation. It can take a real leap of faith and stab at being creative to put a positive spin sometimes to situations where you could find yourself in a pickle. For instance, I still remember a friend’s wedding that I attended. I gave my phone to another friend for safe keeping and he promptly lost it although to this day he claims that I was the culprit as he had already returned it to me. Sometime later, during the same wedding, one of my heels broke and I ended up ripping off the other so that I could atleast walk in two broken shoes. However, my spirits were still high enough thanks to the light comments from the large friend group that I was attending the wedding with. And boy, did they have their creative meter turned on full or what?
Optimism is not a one size fits all and neither is it a one pill for all ills. However, when sprinkled with the right dose, it sure can make life a lot more palatable.
Do you think you are optimistic? What tricks do you use to build that muscle? Let me know in the comments below.