Harnessing the power of optimism
Ah, the age-old optimism-pessimism debate. Do you see the glass as half-full or half-empty?
Many believe it’s better, and healthier, to see the glass as half-full, though some argue that being optimistic is not realistic, and that thinking that way can actually be detrimental.
Gillian Goerzen, a health coach from British Columbia and author of the just-released book The Elephant in the Gym, says by adopting an optimistic outlook we can set ourselves up for success.
“One of the biggest pitfalls of the human brain is our negativity bias – our tendency to pull out and place more mental value on the things we aren’t doing well.”
While this served a purpose for learning and development when we were children, she says, it serves little purpose as an adult.
“Not only does this pessimistic attitude make us feel crummy, it actually prevents us from having [the] headspace we need to be successful. Let me explain: When we struggle, we are naturally more inclined to focus on what we’re not doing. That negativity bias actually decreases our self-efficacy and self-confidence (essentially our belief in our ability to follow through successfully). And when we have decreased self-efficacy and self-confidence, our capacity for being successful is diminished.”
But we can flip that around, Goerzen says, by becoming mindful of this natural tendency within us and countering it with an optimistic mindset.
Lisa Sansom of LVS Consulting, which helps organizations create positive places to work, adds: “Optimists tend to have longer, healthier lives. They tend to have more friends, and have happier relationships.”
Optimists also tend to be more engaged at work, she notes.
“Optimism does not mean always looking on the sunny side of things. Optimists can also be realistic and then working towards positive solutions to the problems that they perceive,” Sansom says.
Finding a balance
However, “optimism on overdrive can be a bit dangerous,” Goerzen says, so it’s important to find a balance between optimism and realism. While a positive attitude is absolutely beneficial, we can sometimes take it too far and adopt an “all in” approach that can end up becoming overwhelming – for example, perhaps we’re trying to make too many changes in our lives at once.
Finding a balance between healthy optimism and realism, Goerzen says, comes down to “owning where you are and breaking goals down piece by piece in manageable steps.”
With her clients, she uses a strategy called habit layering.
“You keep the bigger picture in mind – including where you’re starting – but start with small manageable shifts that allow you to be successful,” she explains. “As you build your belief in your abilities, you have more confidence to pursue bigger and more challenging steps forward.”
What about when things don’t work out?
Goerzen recognizes that optimism isn’t a kind of cure-all to make sure things always work out.
“Even if we have a healthy balance of optimism and realism and have an actionable and reasonable plan to get somewhere, there will be side steps, missteps and steps backward. Heck, you may even fall flat,” she says.
But it all comes down to your perspective.
“Instead of looking at something not working out as a failure, see it as an opportunity to learn. Reframing ‘failure’ as an opportunity to notice what strategies didn’t work means you can learn from every experience,” says Goerzen.
Tips for being more optimistic
- Count your wins
“Each day, make a list of all the things you did [that are] awesome,” Goerzen says, emphasizing the value of counting even the smallest victories. “This enables you to keep your brain focused on the ways you’re being successful and magnify those memories by reliving them as you make your wins list. This helps to reinforce that habit pathway and the healthy habits.”
- Gratitude journal
Sansom says gratitude journals work well for many people.
You can start a practice of writing down one thing (or more) that you are grateful for every day, to develop a more active appreciation of the good things in your life and what you have accomplished.