A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
–– Winston Churchill
We all know people who remain upbeat and positive about the future, even in the midst of hardships or tragedies.
And all of us are familiar with the opposite: people who seem to have every advantage in life, yet take the negative view of every situation.
Research has shown that both of these approaches – positivity and negativity - have the potential of going viral by infecting the larger team and organizational cultures with positivity or negativity. With either emotion, we can spiral – downward or upward. It's a choice.
Pessimism is easy
Let’s face it. We live in a world filled with negativity. Pessimism is easy. Optimism is hard – it takes work, and we have to regulate our emotions.
None of us have a choice of what events we encounter, but we all have a choice about how we respond. And we are not only choosing for ourselves; our decisions affect our teams, families, friends and others.
There are good, practical reasons to maintain an optimistic view, including the simple notion that optimism can fuel us with the energy to pursue positive outcomes, despite the odds in sales, in business, in relationships, and in life.
Optimism may also help in the reduction of stress and its negative effects on the body caused by the release of cortisol and other hormones from the fight-or-flight response.
Optimism predicts resiliency
Research shows that optimism can also be a powerful force in our mental resiliency. Dr. Dennis Charney, the dean of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, studied some 750 Vietnam veterans who had been held as prisoners of war for six to eight years. Even though they suffered torture and were isolated in solitary confinement, they remained resilient.
Despite enduring inhumane stress, the research found that these POWs did not develop post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, as others had. Their secret? Charney identified 10 traits that set them apart from others, including having meaning in life – something to live for – and a sense of humor. But the number one trait was optimism.
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl shared similar findings from his experiences in Nazi death camps, documented in his profound book, Man's Search for Meaning.
Here are some tips to help you build and maintain optimism in your life and your work:
1. Practice gratitude. It's impossible to express gratitude and pessimism at the same time. At the end of my phone voicemail, I ask callers to tell me something they are grateful for. When I listen to their messages, sometimes there's a pause, with a flustered reply, such as "my family," and other times people give heartfelt, profound answers.
They might tell me about loved ones with a serious illness or a recent death in the family. The people who respond with these dramatic answers often have the greatest sense of optimism in their voices saying, “I know we will get through this” and “God is great.”
My practice upon waking is to immediately think of three things I’m grateful for in life, and why. For me, these can range from the critical: my family, friends, and health; the blessings of freedom in life and business; the opportunity to change people’s lives; to the mundane: a favorite meal, workout or coffee. These thoughts often end up making me smile; a great way to start the day.
2. Develop awareness. The first step is awareness. Every day, we and others create environments and situations filled with negativity and cynicism. We make pessimistic judgments and tell ourselves negative stories. It’s hard to know we’re wearing dark glasses until we take them off.
3. Assume the best. I have a CEO client who likes to say that “when we look into a dark room, we never assume it’s filled with angels.” It’s true. Research finds that we have a bias toward negative information (just turn on the TV news to confirm this) and we make negative assumptions. This might be protective wiring in our DNA, but it can impede our success.
Try assuming the best intentions of people and situations for a week and see if it changes your point of view.
4. Keep your head up. Both literally and figuratively. You’ve heard the phrase "keep your chin up,” which means you should remain optimistic. As I’ve written about body language, how you position yourself can greatly influence your confidence and people’s confidence in you. Keep your head up and your eyes on the prize.
5. Try a negativity fast. Once we become aware of the high level of negativity in our lives, we have the opportunity to control the flow. Try going on a diet that limits your exposure to negative people, environments, and media.
6. Rewrite your story. Throughout the day we tell stories about our lives and businesses and about who we are. The person we tell stories to the most is ourselves and, particularly among high achievers, we will tell negative stories in comparison to others: “I’m not achieving enough; she is more accomplished; he has a better life.”
It’s funny because we’ll apply the negativity to ourselves, but we seem to always apply the positive filter when comparing ourselves to others: The rich and famous have those perfect lives; all of our friends on Facebook are living it up, and here we are caught up in the same old grind.
Rewriting the stories we tell ourselves – with a good measure of gratitude – will give us the lift we need for a greater sense of optimism.
None of this is easy. In a world of 24/7 social media and negative news, optimism can be a full-time job. But it is a task worth the effort, with remarkable benefits for us and those around us.
Develop your awareness and choose optimism.