Use the simple method you’ll see in a moment to develop your optimism in a focused way. Hang on to it. Make it a way of life. Optimistic people have enormous advantages.
The research is showing that optimism is strongly associated, not only with motivation and achievement, but more rewarding relationships and significantly better mental and physical health.
It’s healthy optimism we need not: ‘It can’t happen to me’ or ‘don’t worry, be happy, everything will be okay’ (and doing nothing). That’s denial.
Unbridled optimism is as useful as striving to be relentlessly positive. They are related ideas and they’re both exhausting and unrealistic. Despite what many of the motivational gurus say, the research shows that you’ll be less resilient and achieve less.
Healthy optimism means facing the facts, but believing that we will cope, or succeed in the end.
Healthy optimism doesn’t mean being totally realistic or objective about our ability to overcome our setbacks. The idea that to be mentally healthy we need an accurate picture of reality isn’t supported by the research. Depressed people have the most accurate view say, the probability that they will have a serious accident or a fatal disease. Their realism doesn’t make them successful.
Researchers believe that our achievements and our mental and physical health depend on ‘positive illusions’ such as evaluating ourselves more positively than the facts justify and believing that we have more control and skill than we do. A lattering selection of facts and memories about ourselves is healthier than objective reality because it gives us the confidence to continue facing challenges.
Positive illusions seem to be more common and perhaps more useful in western cultures.21 In Asia, where belonging and relating to other people is valued more than independence, seeing ourselves as average could be more adaptive.
Think of healthy optimism as the zone between denial and the depressed person’s view of reality.
Healthy optimism is a key to motivation and resilience. Take selling. Even if you’ve never made a living from selling, you can probably imagine the challenge of facing rejection every day – rejection that could vary from a polite, ‘No, thank you,’ to being chased of the premises.
In one of many studies showing the power of optimism, Martin Seligman and Peter Schulman tested insurance agents for optimism and found those at the top half of the scale outsold those in the bottom half by 37 per cent. The optimists were also much less likely to quit.22 hey believed that they would eventually be successful and that success was within their control. Notice how optimism is linked with seeing ourselves as the captain of our own ship.
How long and well do you want to live?
Optimists live longer, healthier lives – and not just a little longer or a little healthier.
Researchers checked the records of almost 100 men who had graduated from Harvard University between 1939 and 1944. The men had been interviewed and physically examined every five years and the researchers were able to conclude that their optimism or pessimism at 25 predicted their health at
- By the time they reached just 45, the pessimists’ health began to deteriorate more quickly.23
Researchers from the Mayo Clinic studied the health of 839 patients over 30 years. They found that the optimists decreased their chances of early death by 50 per cent. They were also happier, more peaceful, more relaxed and had less pain and sufered fewer physical and emotional problems.
Some researchers have studied ‘learned helplessness’. It’s a product of conditioning that starts when we are very young, but we can learn to replace pessimism with optimism.
So how do we account for the repeated findings that positive people and optimists live longer? It could be that the real issue is avoiding negativity and the harmful effect it has on our autonomic nervous system which keeps our body aroused to handle threats.
Positive emotions have a healing effect. Pessimists’ bodies have even more to cope with than constant arousal. They are more likely to believe that nothing they do makes any difference, so they drink and smoke more than other people, and exercise less. They are also less likely to visit their doctor for a check-up. They are significantly more depressed and depression is linked with early death. There’s also evidence that a pessimistic outlook damages or inhibits the body’s immune system.26
Research shows that pessimists suffer in their relationships throughout their lives. They have more relationship break-ups, have more family troubles, fail more often in their education and are more likely to be lonely – probably because all the doom and gloom talk turns of people with a more balanced view of life.
Longer, healthier, happier lives with more rewarding and enduring relationships. It puts the efort to train ourselves to be more optimistic into perspective, doesn’t it?
If you think that your outlook is generally pessimistic, don’t despair. You won’t have to wait decades to see the benefits of retraining yourself.
This time you will have two very important advantages: You’ll be focused on change and you’ll be in charge of the training process.
Getting specific about optimism
Researchers think of optimism in two ways: a generally optimistic outlook (a trait) and an optimistic ‘explanatory style’27. Explanatory style is the way we usually explain our successes and setbacks to ourselves.
- Develop your optimistic explanatory style
You can develop your optimism by changing or enhancing your explanatory style. It can be a challenge to change old habits, but the process is simple.
The research reveals that the most successful people attribute their failures and setbacks to something other than their ability or potential.
When they succeed, it’s the opposite – confirmation that they have ability or potential.
A student with an optimistic explanatory style would believe that her poor mark in an exam had a temporary cause, say, not studying hard enough. She would still believe in her potential.
A student with a pessimistic explanatory style would believe that the cause of her poor mark was lack of talent- something she couldn’t change. The mark would be evidence that she had no potential and should abandon the subject.
If it seems easy to avoid that kind of pessimistic thinking, let’s note what many people say about their setbacks. They tell themselves that it shows they have no talent: ‘I’m just no good at this. I should stick to things I can do.’ hey will also see the barriers to success as permanent or inevitable: ‘its impossible.’ hey avoid challenges and give up easily because any setback is evidence that they were right about their talent or the barriers to success. They set easy goals to avoid being crushed by more failure. They may believe that success is a matter of luck or fate, not effort, persistence or choice.
Check your explanatory style
What do you tell yourself when things go wrong?
An optimistic explanatory style
You tell yourself that it’s an opportunity to learn. It’s a setback, not a failure. You still believe in your potential to succeed. If the event is not something you can control, you recognize that you could not have done anything about it, that it will not always occur and has a limited effect on your life.
A pessimistic explanatory style
You tell yourself that it’s a failure, all your fault and evidence that you don’t have the potential to succeed. You may even tell yourself that you fail at everything you do and always will.
In its most severe form, pessimism or learned helplessness is expressed in self-talk such as, ‘I’m hopeless at this, and everything else and I always will be.’ he researchers refer to those three elements as internal (‘It’s me. I failed because I don’t have the ability.’) stable, (‘I’ll always fail.’) and global (‘I’ll fail in everything I do.’).
That pessimistic self-talk is also a characteristic of people who are depressed.28
Pessimists cannot win because when they do succeed, they dismiss it as just luck: ‘I was just in the right place at the right time,’ or, ‘he boss must have been in a good mood,’ or ‘I should quit now before they find out I’m no good.’ It’s all very humble and there is a place for, ‘I was lucky’ when we are considering other people’s feelings. What really matters is what we tell ourselves. Let’s not miss out on the benefits of seeing each success as confirmation of our potential or ability.
Let’s look at the process in a little more detail.
Choose to be on your way to being a first-class leader, parent, sportsperson etc.
There’s research to support the choice to be on your way. It puts you in growth mindset, which is likely to make you more adaptive and focused on what you want to become and achieving your personal best each time.
You may be worried that you would be avoiding reality by choosing to be on your way to being irst- class, but we don’t know the reality of your potential. Let’s consider the alternatives. You could choose to say to yourself, ‘I’m no good at this and never will be’. How real is that? It might be true, but more likely it’s just the easy way out.
So how true is your belief that you are on your way to being a irst-class leader, parent or golfer? We won’t know until you’ve developed a pattern of healthy self-talk about your successes and setbacks and learned from them. Maybe, by the end of your life, you’ll only be competent rather than excellent, but it surely beats quitting at the first hurdle.
Why shouldn’t you be on your way to being a first-class almost-anything-you-like? If you are motivated and prepared to learn from experience why should you be limited by the way you and other people have seen your abilities up till now? Carol Dweck of Stanford University, has some strong views about the notion that our current performance dictates our long term potential. It’s in her list of ‘beliefs that make smart people dumb’.
Strive to act the part.
Once you have made your choice, strive to act the part of someone who is already first-class in that role.
A first-class speaker for instance would appear to the audience to be totally confident, not giving in to fear of embarrassment. A irst-class parent would strive to be fair and consistent and create opportunities for his child to develop new skills – amongst many other things.
Striving to act the part of someone who is already first-class helps us focus on high performance, and because we are in a growth mindset, we can accept our setbacks as simply part of the process of learning.
Think of acting the part of an optimistic, confident, first-class performer as heroic. You’ll feel the fear of trying something new, of being someone you’re not yet, but you’ll choose to do it anyway.
Does acting the part seem false or insincere? Maybe it is, but we have obligations to ourselves and other people that are far more important.
The opera singer who acts the part of a confident performer from the moment she sweeps on stage is setting herself and the audience up for a irst-class performance. So are Olympic athletes, professional footballers, swimmers, business people and politicians around the world. The British prime minister Winston Churchill suffered deep depression, but chose to act the part of the confident, optimistic leader throughout the Second World War. There’s no hint of pessimism in, ‘We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall never surrender!’
Attribute any setback to something other than your potential.
If you have an optimistic explanatory style and encounter a setback, it obviously won’t be anything to do with your potential, because you’re on your way to being first-class. It will be something you did or didn’t do, probably something you can learn or improve next time. Maybe it’ll be something about the circumstances that won’t arise again.
It’s the most challenging part of the process and not just a matter of cheering yourself up. You’ll be actively separating your disappointment and any temptation to dismiss your potential from your need to look for ways of doing better next time.
You oten need to become a sceptic as you examine your own reactions to setbacks. For instance, let’s say you have just come away from a party you haven’t enjoyed. Your natural inclination might be to think, ‘I’m just no good at parties. I’ve always been shy and always will be.’
Imagine being a supportive friend who likes to ask sceptical questions. Your friend might ask, ‘What about the party last Easter? You enjoyed that, and talked to Jane for an hour. Haven’t you enjoyed parties when you’ve made the effort to start conversations? How many conversations did you start this time? What are you going to do next time?’
Your sceptical friend can help you see failures as simply setbacks and bad events as temporary and controllable. Even if the bad events are beyond your control, you can use your disputation to help you maintain your belief in your potential.
We could blame other people or ind reasons or excuses and we would still be explaining our setbacks as nothing to do with our ability or potential. We could say that an exam wasn’t a valid test of our ability, it’s not a goal worth worrying about, or that it was someone else’s fault.
Reasons or excuses become particularly tempting when our failures are public.31 Sometimes finding excuses we can live with is useful because it leaves our belief in ourselves intact. But if that’s what we usually do, it becomes a way of avoiding reality and we miss opportunities to learn from the experience. It also suggests that we have not yet made the Supreme Liberating Choice – to take control of our own lives.
Attribute your success to your potential or ability.
Top achievers see their success as evidence of their ability or potential. ‘It shows that I’m on my way to being a first-class speaker,’ or ‘I always knew I had the potential.’
Okay, maybe you can’t share your thoughts with the world, but you can, and should, tell yourself. You can say similar things out loud when your children succeed. Make it genuine. These days, even a ten- year-old recognizes lattery.
You might want to be more restrained with your colleagues, partners and friends. Overstating your explanation for their success makes it seem artificial – just a technique and even manipulative. Your affirmations should be credible and genuine. The conversations might go something like these.
You: ‘How did the high dive go?’ Friend: ‘I got gold.’
You: ‘Thought you might. Congratulations.’
‘Thought you might’ states your belief in your friend’s ability or potential in a low-key way.
You (as team leader): ‘he directors were impressed by your presentation.’ Team member: ‘that’s a relief. I was really worried.’
You: ‘I wasn’t. You were well prepared and you’re a confident speaker.’
You could add a suggestion to help your team member do even better next time (provided it doesn’t come across as a criticism and the real point of your comments).
It’s important not to attribute your success entirely to what you did. It may be that specific, practical things you did helped you succeed and obviously it would be useful to note what worked, but the key issue is your ability or potential. If you were to say to yourself, ‘I did well because I studied hard’, it would encourage you to study hard next time, but its value in building your optimism would be temporary. The world’s top achievers learn to believe in themselves, not simply what they do to succeed.
Do you believe that people are either intelligent or talented or not and can’t change? hat’s evidence of a fixed mindset. It’s unhealthy and the consequences are serious.
If you have a fixed mindset, it’s likely that you will be less inclined to take on challenges and be less resilient. You will be less likely to be a top achiever and you’ll probably focus your eforts on trying to impress other people, or at least avoid their criticism.
People with fixed mindsets are likely to see themselves as failures, not just their attempts to meet the standards they have set.32 heir fear of failure makes them more inclined to take easy assignments rather than challenges. They lack resilience because even a setback is evidence that they don’t have the talent or intelligence.
Fixed mindsetters avoid practising and learning skills. To be seen doing either would suggest they didn’t already have what it takes.
Do you believe that people can develop their intelligence and talents? Do you see life as a series of opportunities to experiment and learn? You have a growth mindset.
Growth mindsetters enjoy the journey. They willingly take on challenges. Setbacks may be frustrating, but they are opportunities to learn. Growth mindsetters are resilient achievers.
Mindset and explanatory style have much in common and both are vital for raising healthy, resilient, motivated children.
You can help your children to motivate themselves by believing in their potential, no matter what mistakes they make or what setbacks they encounter.
Help them develop a growth mindset by seeing setbacks as learning opportunities and a natural part of working towards a goal. You might need to suggest that they should work harder or concentrate more, but that’s healthy too, because that effort is within their control. Even suggesting that the effort is worth it, implies that you believe in their potential.
The effects of your belief can be dramatic. In one American study, a tutor gave nine-year-olds a set of word puzzles and responded to their failures by criticizing their efort and implying that they should work harder – which suggested that he believed they could succeed. With another group he focused on how wrong they were – suggesting that they didn’t have much ability. Half the puzzles both groups were given were impossible.
Only 25 per cent of the children whose effort was criticized believed that they failed because they lacked the ability. In the group that had heard how wrong they were, 75 percent reported that they failed because they didn’t have the ability. It took only one hour to create the difference in beliefs at the heart of motivation and health.
Encourage your children to be independent and set high standards for themselves. You are implying that you know they have the ability or potential to succeed.
Bernard Rosen and Roy D’Andrade tested 9 to 11 year old boys for motivation. Then they visited those at the top and bottom of the scale at home to watch what happened when they tackled challenging tasks such as building a tower from irregularly shaped blocks while blindfolded.
Both mothers and fathers of the highly motivated boys were very involved and set high standards for them to achieve on the frustrating tasks. They offered hints and were very ready to praise their sons’ success at each stage.
The parents of the boys who had scored poorly on the motivation test were very different. The fathers, especially, didn’t encourage independence or set high standards. They often told them how to do the task and became annoyed when their sons had any setbacks.34
Staying on track to our goals
Before we begin, we must make sure that the goals are our goals. Most of our goals are influenced by other people. It’s almost inevitable that the people who raised us, the people we admire or with whom we have shared experiences, will have had some bearing on the goals we set for ourselves.
Researchers talk about concordant goals to describe ‘healthy goal-striving’. Concordant goals are those that match our own long-term interests and values and which give us a sense of satisfaction as we make progress towards them.
Being clear on what we want to achieve does check out as an effective motivator. That’s hardly surprising, but even writing our goals and displaying them prominently isn’t enough. Our goals are much more motivating if we think carefully about what our success will look like. Create a vivid mental picture and keep returning to it.
Here’s a refinement. After you have imagined what success will look like, consider what you don’t like about the way things are. Create a contrast between the way things are now and how life will be once you have achieved the goal. Write them – both of them. Review and revise them regularly.
German researchers have found that the stronger the contrast, the greater the motivation, and they talk about ‘diligent and continuous attention’ to the contrast. They found that the method worked well provided the participants believed the goals were attainable.
Achievers focus on action, not optimism about their goals. There’s some evidence that the most optimistic goal-setters are the least resilient. They are crushed by setbacks they didn’t expect.
Focusing on action means setting short-term, maybe daily, goals that describe what you will do – and getting on with them.
It’s important to make sure that your daily goals relate to your long-term goals. Day-to-day ‘relatively- urgent-but-not-important’ tasks can easily take over and our long-term goals become relegated to the status of something we must get around to sometime.
American researchers have found that there are significant mental health benefits when our goals are our own, we relate our daily goals to the big picture, make the striving fun and make an efort to work on all our goals.
There is a trap in goal-setting. We can aim too low so that all we are doing is reassuring ourselves that we have a plan. An effective goal is a stretch.38
Never link your sense of self-worth to your goals.
Deciding that you’ll be a worthwhile person when you pass an exam, buy your dream home or ind your life partner is unhealthy and unproductive. You are less likely to achieve those goals and may pay a significant price as you strive for them.39
Jennifer Crocker from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research surveyed more than 600 students and found that more than 80 per cent based their sense of self-worth on their academic achievements.
The students who made that link did not receive higher grades, despite being highly motivated and studying more. They were more likely to feel stressed and more likely to be in conlict with the academic staff. Linking their sense of self-worth to their grades made them more sensitive to failure.
There wasn’t even an upside to compensate. When they did do well, they just moved the goal posts. Their sense of self-worth didn’t increase any more than the other students who weren’t depending on the outcome to feel good about themselves.
We can choose not to need to justify our existence to the world and feel worthless when we have setbacks. Researchers have found that people who agree with the statement, ‘In order to be truly happy I must prove that I am thoroughly adequate and achieving in most things I attempt,’ are not only dissatisfied and more sensitive to their failings, but much more inclined to be depressed.41
Achievers are more likely to find their self-esteem internally. The students in the University of Michigan survey, who based their self-esteem on internal sources such as being a virtuous person or adhering to their own moral standards, received higher grades.
Top achievers enjoy the journey, setting goals and giving their best effort certainly, but believing in themselves, not just in what they achieve along the way.