A well-intentioned warning for all the pessimists, skeptics and cynics who reckon optimism is fluffy air-headedness.
The latest evidence-based research has some really bad news for you.
Let’s start by being clear what optimism is and what it is not.
What is Optimism?
Typically optimism is viewed in two ways. The first is a general expectation that overall, good things will happen.
The second way optimism is viewed is that optimists believe they have some control over the results they are aiming for, and because of that, they believe the future will be positive.
What Optimism is not
This is not saying that optimists believe they can control everything about their situation or their future results.
Optimism is also different from ‘hope’. Although often used interchangeably in everyday language, the difference, although subtle is important.
Optimism is an expectation about the achievement of results in the future. Whereas, hope is more of a feeling based on our beliefs about ourselves and beliefs about how our actions may or may not impact our results.
Realistic Optimism vs Blind Hope
Like so many things in life, there is a ‘sweet spot’ between pessimism and optimism that is often referred to as Realistic Optimism.
Realistic optimism is a pragmatic understanding that we can’t control everything in our lives and ‘stuff’ happens that can take us off course. However, even when unexpected and/or undesirable events are experienced, optimists believe they can find a new way through the maze and that the future will be ok.
Whereas, blind hope is a choice to ignore the reality that ‘stuff’ happens and in many ways is relying only on the potential of positive pathways.
Research Findings on Optimism
So, back to the pessimists, skeptics and cynics who turn their noses up at optimism.
Results from the latest evidence-based research is suggesting that optimism is specifically related to 11 to 15% longer life span. 1
This is of course good news for optimists.
However, as a word of caution here, the evidence is also clear that not every situation we experience is best managed by being optimistic.
When and When Not to be Optimistic
In his highly acclaimed book ‘Learned Optimism’, the author Martin Seligman Ph.D. provides the following guide on whether to use optimism or pessimism depending on what goal you’re trying to accomplish2:
• If you are in an achievement situation (getting a promotion, selling a product, writing a difficult report, winning a game).
• If you are concerned about how you will feel (fighting off depression, keeping up your morale).
• If the situation is apt to be protracted and your physical health is an issue.
• If you want to lead, if you want to inspire others, if you want people to vote for you.
• If your goal is to plan for a risky and uncertain future.
• If your goal is to counsel others whose future is dim.
• If you want to appear sympathetic to the troubles of others (although, once confidence and empathy are established, optimism can help).
Good news for Pessimists
The good news for pessimists though, is you don’t always need to be pessimistic (and the evidence is clear that you oughtn’t be pessimistic all the time).
As Seligman highlights: “One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that (if they choose to) individuals can choose the way they think.”3
The real lesson here is this … it’s not what or how you think. It’s what you intentionally and mindfully choose to do.
We are not our thoughts or our feelings.
We get to choose our actions and when we are clear on our personal values, we can, even in the toughest of situations where our thoughts and feelings may be challenging, choose to take appropriate and positive actions, aligned with our personal values, toward being the best version of ourselves.
It’s just that the more optimistic you are as you do this, it seems the longer you’ll be around to be making those choices.
- Lewina O. Lee, Peter James, Emily S. Zevon, Eric S. Kim, Claudia Trudel-Fitzgerald, Avron Spiro III, Francine Grodstein, and Laura D. Kubzansky. (2019). Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women. PNAS September 10, 2019 116 (37) 18357-18362
- Seligman: M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York. Vintage Books (p208-209)
- Seligman: M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York. Vintage Books. (p. 8).