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In Support of Optimism


Are you an optimist?  I can confirm that I am.  How do I know this?  A few reasons.

Firstly, my childhood literary heroes were optimists.  Pollyanna Whittier taught me that “there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it.”.  Anne of Green Gables assured me that "tomorrow is another day with no mistakes in it yet".  I haven't yet figured out Miss Marple but you get the gist.

Secondly, my Strengths Profile assessment has Optimism firmly in my top Realised Strengths (these are things I perform well, use often and which give me energy).  My report states that I always see the best side of any situation and look on the bright side of life.  My belief keeps me strong and enables me to stay positive, even when things become difficult.

Whilst pessimists and realists might think me a happy fool, I feel blessed to have this optimistic streak.  As a student of Positive Psychology, I know that Optimism causes better resistance to depression when bad events strike, better performance at work, particularly in challenging jobs, and better physical health.  What's not to like?

What is Optimism?

According to Martin Seligman in his book "Learned Optimism", there are two dimensions to your optimism / pessimism persuasion: permanence and pervasiveness.

Looking at permanence, pessimists think that bad events are permanent and good events are temporary: "Diets never work", "My lucky day".  Conversely, optimists think that bad events are temporary and good events are permanent: "Diets don't work when you eat out all the time", "I'm always lucky".

Looking at pervasiveness, pessimists think that bad events are universal and good events are specific: "Books are useless", "I'm smart at maths".  And optimists think that bad events are specific and good events are universal "This book is useless", "I'm smart".

If you'd like to test your optimism on these criteria, you can take the Learned Optimism Test here.

Whilst psychologists tend to believe that optimism is a "disposition", the good news is that you can train yourself to become more optimistic and gain from all the benefits mentioned above.

Becoming more optimistic

A really simple exercise to increase optimism is the "best self" exercise.

When you have at least 10 minutes of free time, envision yourself in a future that has turned out to be the rosiest that is possible (and feasible). It may help to pick a particular time-point in the future, say 10 years from now. In this future, you have reached all the goals you had set for yourself, you have climbed the pinnacle of your dream career, you have found the soul-mate and love of your life, you are in peak physical shape, you have friends who are trustworthy and caring, and so on. You get the picture. Visualise what such a future will be like and feel like to you in as much detail as possible.

If you'd like to practise further, I can also recommend Seligman's ABCDE exercise which you can access here

Optimism in Action

This week I was "out-optimisticked" by a friend.  We were going to meet at the beach for a dog walk.  These days you have to book parking in advance at the beach car park as it's at 20% capacity.  I wasn't able to book a space so we had to postpone our walk.  I was quite disappointed but my friend replied "nice to extend our 'having it to look forward to!' and the weather looks nicer next week too".

In these difficult times, I think it would be beneficial for us all to adopt a similar outlook on life.

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