Business of Well-being

Become More Optimistic to Improve Health and Success

Is the glass of your life half-empty or half-full? Your answer may influence your professional and personal success and your mental and physical health, possibly even which diseases you develop. A person's health and success at age 60 are strongly related to that person's optimism or pessimism at age 25. Optimists do much better at work, school, and in sports and are healthier and may even live longer. Optimism is also the #1 most important personality trait in predicting professional success.

I'm not referring to the Pollyanna belief that "it's a wonderful world" but the much more important "I'm capable of handling what comes my way. If I don't know how to handle something, I can learn."Optimists are resilient. Like a mouse looking for a way out of a maze, an optimist continues looking for better options making him a better problem solver and decision-maker - usually. There are exceptions. It's better to be pessimistic when optimism might have serious consequences if you were wrong:  like cheating on your taxes.

The optimist would assume he wouldn't get caught so a little pessimism may be in order in some situations. Pessimists give up more easily, become depressed much more often and achieve less and have poorer health. Pessimism blocks your ability to see therefore act on the choices available to you. Even though pessimism is more appropriate sometimes (and some argue more realistic), it pays to develop greater optimism to increase your successes.

Dr. Martin Seligman, psychology professor at the University of PA, and world-renowned optimism/pessimism researcher, identified three components of what he calls your explanatory style: how you explain why something bad or good has happened to you. For example, you applied for a job that you didn't get. Right now, to yourself, answer, "Why didn't I get the job?"1. Ongoing vs. temporary: Does your explanation suggest the event has ongoing consequences or is simply a temporary setback?

  • "I'll never get a job!" (On-going and pessimistic)
  • "I wasn't on for the interview." (Temporary setback and optimistic)

2.  Global vs. specific: Does not getting the job have global effects on your life or only on a specific part?

  • "I'm a loser" (Global and pessimistic)
  • "I won't have much of an income this month" (Specific therefore optimistic)

3.  Blame yourself vs. an outside source: Do you generally find yourself at fault for most bad things that happen or is there something outside yourself that's responsible?

  • "I'm a loser" (Self-blame and pessimistic)
  • "What a terrible interviewer!" (Blames outside source and optimistic)

(Note: Seligman isn't encouraging you to shirk personal responsibility but has found that blaming yourself for almost everything bad that happens is a sign of pessimism.) Challenge your explanations of why something bad has happened to you when they suggest on-going and global negative results and when you excessively blame yourself. Replace these with explanations that show only a temporary setback in only certain areas of your life and lighten up on blaming yourself.

Become more optimistic to buffer yourself from the stress of life and to increase your options. Rather than giving up, as a pessimist is likely to do, you'll be more like the Energizer bunny who just keeps going creating greater professional and personal success along the way.

A truism: you find what you look for

Every day each one of us gets out of bed and without realizing finds what we look for. Whether it's evidence that your boss is unfair or that a co-worker is lazy, you'll look for and find evidence that supports your beliefs. We all do it. This isn't bad or good, it just is.If you believe a co-worker is lazy, you'll notice when he's being lazy. When he's productive you'll think it's an exception. But would your stress decrease if you were to challenge your belief and actually look for evidence of him working hard more often?  

"Catch others doing something right" is good advice from Ken Blanchard. If you believe your boss is unfair you'll look for and find evidence of it - even where it doesn't exist. Maybe you were kept off a team project and assume it's because your boss was unfair. But perhaps it's because others were more qualified. Rather than complain about it, assertively ask her why you were kept off the team. If she says that others were more qualified ask what you'd need to change to be considered for the next team project.  

Put your energy into improving yourself in whatever ways suggested. But if this advice seems too much against your beliefs, you'll argue that it won't do any good because it never does. So you change nothing and get passed over again proving that you're right! Those who believe that no matter what they do it will do no good eventually give up trying and become passive in the face of challenges. Their stress soars because feeling helpless is the most stressed position of all.  

Too many who feel helpless will turn to bad coping habits like drinking or smoking too much or participating in passive activities like watching too much TV. These bad habits lead to gaining weight and inactivity producing poorer health and more aches and pains, evidence that life's unfair.

You prove yourself right again!So be careful what you look for --- for you will find it. Reduce your stress by looking for and finding evidence that you can make healthy and necessary changes to improve your life. Look for and find solutions to that which stresses you. Believe that solutions are out there.

Challenge pessimistic interpretations with optimistic ones to increase success

  • How would you respond to these situations?
  • You were passed over for a promotion. Why?
  • You got the promotion! Can you handle it?
  • You and your spouse had another fight. Now what?

An optimist would assume these challenges would be temporary, changeable (she could positively influence them), and specific (only affecting one area of her life vs. her entire life).  A pessimist would assume the challenges to be ongoing, she wouldn't have much if any control to influence them (unchangeable) and if she failed it would impact more areas of her life than just the affected one (global).

A pessimistic reaction makes you feel helpless, thus inhibiting your ability to effectively manage the situation. Pessimists are less resilient than optimists for bouncing back and resolving their challenges. Recently I wrote about how your explanatory style, how you explain why something bad or good happened to you, reveals whether you're an optimist or a pessimist. Pessimistic reactions to the above situations would sound like:

  • "I always get passed over for the good things in life." (Ongoing, unchangeable and global)
  • "Why did they put me in charge of this project? I'll never be able to come up with good ideas in time.  I never do." (Ongoing, unchangeable)
  • "Another fight!  She's leaving me this time, I know it." (Ongoing and unchangeable)

It's not what happens that determines your mood or success but how you explain what happens to you. Your explanatory style determines how you handle the situation. To begin moving more into optimism argue with your pessimistic explanations.

  • When something undesirable happens to you write down your reasons why it happened.
  • Circle any of the three pessimistic components of the explanatory style: ongoing, unchangeable and global. (The formula changes when the something that happens to you is good.)
  • Challenge the pessimistic components with optimistic alternatives: It's a temporary setback, you can change it and it affects only this one specific area of your life.

For example, in the "landing a big account" situation, here's a more optimistic response than your, "Great! How can I screw it up this time?"

  • "What lessons can I apply from past accounts I handled well as well as those I didn't do so well with? This will help me be successful this time (changeable). There will probably be some problems but I can figure out how to handle them (temporary and changeable)."

An optimistic response encourages your mind to open up to see the possibilities, which increases your chances of success in anything from professional success to managing an illness. You are what you think you are.  If you honestly think you're competent you'll be so. If you truly believe you can learn from past mistakes you probably will. If you think you can handle something, I bet you're right.

These beliefs are communicated through your explanatory style. Challenge the pessimistic ones with optimistic interpretations and little by little you'll notice a change in your own approach to life's challenges. Your successes will begin to grow and will build on each other. It takes time. Your pessimistic approach wasn't built in a day nor will an optimistic one replace it quickly. With perseverance, however, you can move in a more successful direction, at least if you believe you can.

About The Author

Jacquelyn Ferguson, In 1976, after returning from 2 years in the Peace Corps in Colombia, South America, Jackie earned her Master's degree in Community Counseling/Psychology from her home state of Minnesota.  She then worked for several years as a Program Director at a mental health center. In 1982 she founded InterAction Associates, her management development, coaching and training firm.

For over 25 years Jackie has designed and presented keynotes and workshops on stress management, diversity, customer-service and communication skills. Her mission is to inspire you to live a conscious life of personal responsibility in your relations with yourself and others, which she weaves into every presentation to help you "wake up" to your responsibility in making your desired changes.

Literally hundreds-of-thousands of people throughout North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and points in between have benefitted from her programs. Look for her 2010 published book, Let Your Body Win:  Stress Management Plain & Simple, at Jackie is a Stress and Wellness Coach as well as a Corporate Coach helping people achieve more success with less stress. You can request her weekly emailed column, Stress for Success, published in a Gannett Newspaper.

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