Optimism 101

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What comes to mind when you hear the word “optimist?” Do you think of that proverbial glass half full? Or someone who makes lemons out of lemonade? Then you’re on the right track.

Generally speaking, optimists expect the best outcome in any situation.

Some psychologists have gone on to define optimism (and pessimism) based on how a person explains various events. According to Psychology Today and psychologist Martin Seligman, when optimists encounter setbacks or failures, they tend to explain them as: 1) external (due to other people or specific features of the situation), 2) unstable (unlikely to happen repeatedly), and 3) specific (limited to one area of life).

Pessimists, on the other hand, explain a failure or setback as: 1) internal (something about themselves), 2) stable (unlikely to change and become positive at a later time), and 3) global (likely to happen in several areas of life).

Is optimism helpful? How so?

According to Psychology Today, optimism has been linked to all kinds of positive outcomes including higher motivation and even physical health. Why? Well, it’s hard to know exactly what’s at the root, but if you take the optimist’s route toward explaining setbacks, you’re more likely to persevere, right?

So do I just go around being perky all the time? That’s fake!

You probably don’t have to try that hard to be an optimist. Most of us are generally optimistic to an extent. And you also don’t need to adopt a falsely chipper form of optimism that doesn’t ring true. Actually, research has begun to show that a small dose of pessimism (or realism) helps build resilience and can bolster that base level optimism and help you achieve your goals. When the setback occurs, you’re ready for it, and also ready to push through and keep pursuing what you want!

So the next time you encounter an obstacle to your goals, try the following:

  • See if you can attribute this particular setback to something outside yourself.

Let’s say you try out for a school play for the very first time, and you’re up against a much more experienced performer for the lead role. You don’t get the part. It’s more optimistic (and realistic) to acknowledge that your competition has way more experience, which is why she got the part instead of you. It’s not because you’re a “bad actor.”

  • Tell yourself the setback isn’t necessarily permanent. 

With each play, you’ll improve, so you won’t always be a beginner. Eventually, you’ll be the one with all the experience who’s landing that lead role.

  • Finally, ask yourself if this particular setback might be specific to a given situation.

Maybe you auditioned on a day after a poor night’s sleep, or when you’ve just recovered from a cold. Those are specific conditions that might result in a poorer audition.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a natural optimist, you can learn optimism. Be realistic, but do expect the best. You’ll be encouraged to keep working towards your dreams.

Do you consider yourself an optimist? When you face a setback, what’s your first thought? How do you explain it?

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