The Benefits of Optimism: A Complete and Practical Wellness Guide
Advice about optimism and “positive thinking” can feel ubiquitous in the modern world. Yet when facing acute challenges, it is understandable that many people find it unrealistic to maintain a cheery disposition. Moreover, such advice can feel Pollyanna at best (or condescending at worst) when facing the very real problems of the modern era. Fortunately, there is a scientific approach to optimism that goes beyond merely looking on the bright side. A look at the tangible guidelines for optimism can empower you with practical tools to improve your overall wellness.
What is Optimism?
Optimism is a state of confidence about successful outcomes of circumstances or future endeavours. In practice, optimism primarily involves outlook and mindset. Although some people use the words “optimism” and “happiness” interchangeably, it is important to note that these are two separate things. While optimism can foster happiness, you can maintain optimistic even if you feel far from happy in a specific moment.
Similarly, while some optimists can see the positive every situation, it is a misconception that optimists only look at life through rose-coloured glasses. To dispel these myths, it is best to look at optimism from an organizational behavioural and scientific standpoint. There are two primary types of optimism: dispositional optimism and attributional optimism.
Dispositional optimism is a collective approach to expectations for the future. It assumes that while individual incidents might feel unfavourable, each component will collectively create a positive outcome. Sayings such as “all things work together for the good” and “everything happens for a reason” derive from dispositional optimism. It is an Aristotelian belief that the result is greater than the sum of its parts.
Attributional optimism occurs when individuals credit favourable outcome to circumstances within their own control. When something positive happens, these individuals “attribute” it to their own skills and abilities. This form of self-empowerment encourages people to constantly use their strengths to get ahead instead of focusing on the weaknesses that hold them back.
Can I Cultivate Optimism?
Have you ever wondered why some people seem “naturally” cheerful and optimistic? According to an authoritative study conducted at Kings College London, there is science behind this. The exhaustive study found that at least 25% of optimism is inheritable through your genetics. Also, there are other factors in childhood that influence positivity of outlook, including socioeconomic status and parental security.
As you can imagine, these essential factors that affect ingrained attitudes are often completely out of a person’s control. However, the study still found that despite the circumstances outside of someone’s control during the formative years, there is still over 70% of adaptability room for developing optimistic traits as adults.
Moreover, a study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that optimism is a growth mindset. This means that a person can harness traits and develop consists habits in the same way one can gradually adjust eating habits or workout regimens. In other words, if you are someone who gravitates toward the negative in any given situation, there is hope for fixing this mindset.
Benefits of Optimism
The benefits of optimism go far beyond a sunny disposition. With the right application, optimism has practical applications for everything from stress management to workplace productivity.
1. Stress Management
According to a study at the National Institute of Health, there is a direct correlation between optimism and neurological stress-coping mechanism. Whereas activation of stressors naturally sends your body into “fight-or-flight” mode, optimism inverts the curve by letting your body know that any given outcome is flexible.
2. Physiological Perks
Highly reputable research links optimism to a host of physiological perks ranging from improved posture to greater athletic performance. In addition, a longitudinal study presented at the National Academy of Science found correlations between optimism and improved lifespans among both men and women.
3. Improved Resiliency
Many leadership experts believe that a great portion of success comes from the willingness to persevere through seemingly insurmountable circumstances. As grand as this sounds, however, it is unlikely that humans maintain the will to move forward if they believe that circumstances simply cannot change. Optimism trains the brain to sustain belief in the availability of different options and favourable results.
4. Increased Productivity
A growing body of research at Harvard Business School found that optimism and positive work cultures increase productivity.
5. Solid Financial Decisions
Did you know that there is compelling evidence of the financial benefits of optimism? According to cross-sectional research conducted through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Harvard Business Review, optimists are significantly more likely to engage in healthy financial habits. These include setting aside money for an emergency fund or actively researching how to live debt-free.
6. Enhanced Leadership Perception
Without question, optimism can improve interactions with others. You may have often heard the notion that everyone wants to be around a happier person. But there is also evidence that individuals place much higher confidence in optimistic leaders.
People who practice optimism are more likely to receive promotions over their peers and lead larger teams. And when it comes to sales, a University of Pennsylvania study found that optimistic individuals outsell their pessimistic peers by 56%.
How to Recognize “False Optimism”
Although there are numerous benefits to optimism, it would be misguided to apply optimism without any practicality or logical reason. Many experts believe that widespread “false optimism” (also known as blind optimism) as the reason that real or practical optimism remains grossly misunderstood. To avoid missteps, learn how to recognize the three types of blind optimism:
1. Optimism Bias – Optimism bias occurs when an individual lets their guards down in the name of “positive thinking.” It refers to the practice of rushing into a situation without doing the appropriate research. You can often find optimism bias in famous market bubbles such as the Tulipmania period, the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, or the real-estate bubble of 2008. To avoid optimism bias, experts recommend performing at least a quick risk-reward analysis before embarking on any life-altering endeavour.
2. Over-Confidence – Over-confidence is simply the belief that a person can do everything on his or her own. Even if a person is strong enough to take on the entire burden, this approach is rarely practical. Avoid over-confidence by activity practising gratitude for the role others play in your success. Even if it is as simple as a thank-you note or acknowledgement of the generosity of others, smart practices can help prevent getting in over your head in the future.
3. Apathy – Finally, some people equate optimism with inaction and apathy. While one may believe that “everything happens for a reason,” it is a false equivalency to leave your everything up to chance. For example, you may feel optimistic that you will pass an exam. But if you fail to study, the probability of passing becomes quite low. It is far more expedient to put forth the appropriate effort and then staying optimistic so that you do not psych yourself out before reaching your goals.
What are Practical Ways to Increase Optimism?
Now that you know the difference between blind optimism versus real optimism, it is time to develop some practical skills to increase your optimistic mindset.
1. Think Long-Term
Experts believe that optimism is rarely the right approach for quick or rash decision. Rather, it is one of the best ways to map out your end-game decisions. Try planning out your long-term goals with a system like FutureBoards or Learned Optimism to promote a favourable outcome through confidence and research.
2. Focus Outside of Yourself
It is quite easy to imagine reasons your goals might not work out. Directing your energy away from yourself and onto external activities at which you excel can increase your optimistic outlook.
For example, famed philosopher Bertrand Russell once said that the quickest way to make ourselves miserable is to continually focus on ourselves. Instead of focusing on internal thoughts, it was his love of mathematics that kept Bertrand Russell moving forward to eventually win the Nobel prize.
3. Search for Opportunities (Not Silver Linings)
As you can imagine, it is incredibly easy to become annoyed when someone insists on finding a “silver lining” within a horrible situation. No matter how well-intentioned, insisting on this approach might even result in disillusionment or burnout. Instead of trying to force positivity onto a situation, think outside the box for opportunities instead.
For example, a college student rejected from numerous internships might need to search for opportunities in related industries or take matters into her own hands and devise an internship of her own.
Similarly, side hustles have exploded in popularity as individuals began to hunt for outside opportunities instead of looking for the silver lining in a dead-end job. Redirecting energy to think outside the norm is a great way to statistically increase the likelihood of success.
The Bottom Line
Optimism provides a great launching pad for achieving everything from fitness to lifestyle goals. Rather than simply looking on the bright side, optimism is a complete growth mindset designed to keep you confident for the long haul. With building blocks that are both practical and positive, you can create a solid foundation for overall wellness.