Blog Short #26: The Up and Down Sides of Optimism
Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you . My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!
What image pops up in your mind when you hear the word “optimism?” For me it’s a little girl jumping up and down and clapping her hands in anticipation of something good with a big smile on her face. Her name is “Little Mary Sunshine!”
I have that image embedded in my psyche because that was the pet name my mother used for me while I was growing up. She knew I was an optimist early on.
Optimism is a powerful force that can help you get through all sorts of situations in life, as well as increase your happiness and sense of contentment. It can also sometimes blind you to things you need to see. This is today’s subject.
Optimism versus Pessimism
Let’s start with a definition. The best way to do that is to compare optimism to pessimism. Imagine this scenario:
Two women are preparing a meal for a dinner party later in the evening. Each of them makes a cake for dessert that falls flat and is not salvageable.
The pessimist reacts with this thought train:
This is a disaster! I’m a complete failure, and the dinner is going to be a flop. It’s all my fault. I’ll never get over this embarrassment. Things like this always happen to me!
The optimist has this reaction:
Oh my! Well that won’t work!! Let’s see, what else could I put together quickly for dessert? I’m sure I can come up with something. It’ll be fine.
These two different responses exemplify what’s called explanatory style. For the pessimist, the explanation for the event is to assume blame (I’m a complete failure!), assign stability for the situation (I’ll never get over it!), and ascribe a global impact to it (Things like this always happen to me.).
The optimist is just the opposite. She doesn’t identify the mishap as a commentary on her worth, but rather a situation (Oh my! Well that won’t work!). She sees it as an obstacle that can be overcome with some problem-solving (I’m sure I can come up something!). And she has a bright outlook on the future (It’ll be fine.).
- Focus on what’s going well.
- See obstacles as opportunities to problem-solve.
- Don’t view mistakes as a lack of self-worth.
- Make use of creativity and imagination to meet challenges.
- Develop good coping skills.
- Have a general outlook of hope for the future.
- Have less depression and anxiety.
- Practice gratitude.
- Assume things will go wrong more often than not.
- See obstacles as stop signs that signal the end.
- View mistakes as personal failures.
- Become overwhelmed in the face of problems and give up.
- Have poor coping skills.
- Have a negative outlook for the future.
- Are depressed and anxious more often.
- Don’t see a lot to be grateful for.
Although optimism is a powerful force for success, there is a downside to it which is called optimism bias.
It refers to our tendency to overestimate the probability of things going well and underestimate the negative aspects of a situation that could occur. In other words, our expectations exceed the reality of what actually happens.
Entrepreneurs are a group that are prone to optimism bias. They start a new business with great enthusiasm, and have high expectations for success. Too often, they don’t accurately assess the value of their original idea, or the costs to make it happen, and the time it takes to build a customer base. In truth, 80% of new businesses make it through the first year, 70% survive the second year, and 10 years out, only 30% are still in business.
Another example is a parent who ignores his child’s increasing propensity to lie and manipulate, and assumes that it’s just a stage and will work itself out, even though this behavior is beginning to interfere with the child’s social and academic performance.
Optimism bias is based on denial and miscalculation. It’s turning a blind eye to possible negative circumstances or outcomes that should be addressed. These can be current circumstances as in the case of the parent ignoring his child’s alarming behavior, or future circumstances as in the case of the overly enthusiastic entrepreneur who doesn’t assess possible roadblocks that could cost him.
At it’s worst, optimism bias can take the form of magical thinking which is most dangerous.
If I think it, it is.
This type of thinking has become very popular in today’s culture of the “law of attraction.” There is some truth to the idea that what you focus on, you attract, and you can use that to your advantage. The danger lies in not understanding that you must not just think it, but also take action to make it happen. And as part of that, you must attend to real circumstances and events that have real consequences if ignored. Blind optimism and it’s buddy, magical thinking, too often result in very costly mistakes.
That brings us to what actually works, which is realistic optimism.
A realistic optimist maintains a mindset of hope, openness to possibilities, focus on what’s going well, and a can-do approach to problem-solving. She also addresses and maintains awareness of possible problem areas, pitfalls, risks, and negative outcomes.
Here’s how to make it work:
- Always begin with a real assessment of any given situation or challenge. Identify problems, review worst-case scenarios, and assess possible risks or consequences of your proposed actions. In other words, get a picture of how things are or could be from the negative point of view.
- Now focus on the positive and problem-solve. What are the possible solutions to the challenges at hand? What steps can be taken now? What are the best-case scenarios? It’s fine to visualize those outcomes, and focus on them daily. It’s also fine to think big, just so long as you evaluate possible consequences of your choices ahead. If things turn out better than expected, great! Go with it!
- Make a plan and go forward with a sense of momentum and hope and brightness. The optimist doesn’t give up, but will continue until a positive outcome is reached. Partial solutions are helpful along the way and often build momentum.
- Maintain a proper mindset. Failures are not personal. They don’t reflect who you are, but rather obstacles to be overcome. They’re learning experiences that point the way to a change in direction or perspective.
- Optimists take care of themselves. Keep activities at hand that help soothe, refresh, calm, and energize you. These come in handy when you feel stuck.
- Cultivate a sense of enjoyment in taking on challenges. Don’t view them as drudgery. Allow your imagination to take hold, get curious, and let your creativity provide ideas.
- Above all, practice gratitude in some regular way. A daily gratitude journal is invaluable as it helps you keep a balanced view of what’s going well.
That’s it for today. Hope you have a great week!
All my best,
Little Mary Sunshine:)