Ask people what optimism means and you will get a complete array of answers. From the ‘glass half full’ to ‘seeing life through rose-tinted glasses,’ or ‘hopefulness about the future.’ Optimism is one of those abstract and hard-to-define words that everybody thinks they understand. But what does it really mean?
These last few years, optimism has become a field of growing interest among experts, scientists and professionals. Authors like Professor Seligman and his ‘relearned optimism’ or the many studies proving the relationship between optimism and better health (like those by Julia Boehm and Laura Kubzansky, for example) indicate the level of interest there is for this topic. Many attempts have been made to clearly define this concept, but still different cultures and different fields of study explain it somehow differently, as culture also shapes the way in which the term is understood and interpreted.
Human beings are born optimists
When babies are born, they are always optimists. They expect the world to feed and care for them and for years wake up in the mornings believing that the new day will bring them happiness, adventure and fun. They face each moment like there is no other and enjoy it completely. A child plays and there’s nothing else in the world but that game. The child will play the same game many times, and will not give up on it but persevere in the fun without questioning what comes next. Unless something deeply negative happens to alter that worldview, children remain deeply optimistic for quite a few of their first years, until their adults begin to chastise them for it and demand that they ‘be more realistic,’ or ‘get their heads out of the clouds.’
Those same human beings then gradually start losing part of their optimism as life throws hurdles and problems at them and others recommend a less hopeful view on reality. They will start believing what others tell them and adapting their beliefs to their environment. Little by little, their natural optimism will dwindle and be replaced by a more somber worldview.
Lower levels of optimism result in poorer health and shorter life spans
Many of the studies carried out around the world have consistently proven that optimists live longer, happier and more rewarding lives. They’ve also been proven to be more resourceful and creative. There is an easy explanation to those results.
When pessimists face obstacles, they already believe that chances are they will fail, that things always go wrong, that they will not succeed. By the time they actually need to make the effort, they are so convinced of their failure that a) their effort is not absolute and b) they subconsciously sabotage themselves. As soon as they fail, then, they immediately tell themselves something like, ‘see, I knew it was impossible.’ That new failure thus reaffirms them once more.
Optimists, on the other hand, face obstacles believing that there always is a way to overcome them. They try to solve the situation one way. They might fail but that doesn’t discourage them. They try another method and then another until they finally manage to overcome the problem and find a solution. They study their obstacles and ponder the different approaches to solving them. In their mind, there is no room for failure because they ‘know’ that they will succeed. Optimists never give up because they are convinced that there always is a way. By never giving up, then, optimists become more and more creative and start accumulating a great range of resources that make it easier to succeed at each attempt. That faith thus, results in them doing much more than pessimists and logically getting better results at the end.
All human beings are found somewhere between the two ends of this optimism-pessimism spectrum. Realism is just a way of describing those who are more in the middle of it. Realists, thus, have less resources than optimists but also fail less than pessimists.
Optimism is not thoughtlessness
Optimism, as just shown, is not just a matter of hope and expectations, but the conviction that good things will happen through a constant search for solutions. The true optimist is a hard-working, resourceful person who devotes a lot of energy and effort to reaching whatever goals are to be reached. A thoughtless person is not a true optimist because pursuing a goal without a plan barely ever leads to reaching it and optimists never give up. If one of the attempts to reach a goal is somehow thoughtless, it will likely fail, in which case the true optimist will think it over and formulate a new alternative, thus becoming the opposite of thoughtless. Thoughtlessness and optimism are therefore mutually exclusive in the longer run.
Optimism yields better results
As a result of the optimist’s natural faith and hard-working habits, optimists become much better assets for companies and in general life. They push and drive, inspire and persevere. By not giving up, optimists become natural leaders and motivators.
Optimists rarely suffer from stress or burnout, either, as they don’t worry but act. Stress and burnout stem from worry, from rumination and from fear, three attitudes that optimists naturally avoid by their own lookout on life. Consequently, optimists are less often sick or tense and end up developing a greater capacity to concentrate and focus on the task at hand.
Optimism can be recovered and relearned
As human beings grow up and live, society tries to instil a more sober view of life onto them as children and young people, thus slowly draining optimism from them. Without optimism, energy is low, motivation scarce and drive non-existent. That lack of optimism results in extreme personal and professional costs for families, companies and society as a whole. Fortunately, optimism can be relearned and developed. Like everything else in life, there isn’t one formula-fits-all method for every human being. Optimism can be killed many different ways, and should therefore be reacquired by applying the right tools and methods, adapted to each person’s needs and personal learning strategies.
Underlying subconscious beliefs can lead certain people to adopting a more pessimistic attitude in life. Fear is another trigger, as are pain, guilt or worry. A lot of professionals offer specific stress and burnout solutions to clients and patients but neglect to tackle the underlying problems that caused the original drain of energy and optimism. Only by solving and changing those will the human being truly recover that natural optimism that we are all born with.
If you wish to recover your drive, your motivation, your energy or if you want to help your team or your family to do the same, remember that each human being might have different reasons to feel the way they do and that specific tools and methods might be needed for each of them. Ask the professional you work with to present you with a detailed, personal plan for each person. If they fail to do that, look for a professional who does. Human beings are not robots and their complexity sometimes requires complex solutions. Those exist and can be used, believe me.
Enjoy life… ALL of it,