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 …