When talking about the concept of Optimism one usually thinks back to the old question of whether you view the glass as half empty or half full. The ones who answer the former are labelled as pessimists. And the ones who happen to answer the latter are deemed as optimists. But optimism in more than how one views a glass of water. It is more than an academic or philosophical concept. Optimism is worldview, which believes that this world that we live in is the best of all the worlds. And such a worldview is not only very much learnable, but is also something that is very much beneficial when learnt. But before I get to that, it is important to understand the contrasts between pessimism and optimism.
Martin Seligman in his 1990 book, “Learned Optimism”, highlighted this vital difference between how pessimists and optimists view their respective worlds. He talked about them in terms of explanatory styles, as in how different people will explain different situations or challenges. The three main points here are, permanence, pervasiveness and personalisation.
Now to the benefits of optimism. Optimistic people have healthier hearts and better cholestrol. A 2013 study from the Havard School of Public Health proposes that optimism may protect against cardiovascular diseases as well as lead to higher density of lipoprotein cholesterol, which is a good cholesterol. Optimists also handle stress more smoothly and achieve more in life. According to a study conducted by “positivity” researcher Barbara Fredrickson, people who were made to engage in public speaking had heart rates return to normal quicker when they were exposed to a positive video beforehand. Optimistic people also have better immunity. University of Kentucky professor, Suzanne Segerstrom tracked first year law students, for repeated immunity checks, as they went about their college life. She discovered that students who showed optimism had better cell-mediated immunity and the ones who didn’t have poorer cell-mediated immunity. Optimism is also linked with reduced levels of strokes. A survey conducted between 2006 and 2008 by the Health and Retirement Study, found that with every point increase in optimism, there was a 9% decrease in acute stroke risk. People who are optimistic regulate emotions better and are less prone to depression and PTSD. In his study on war veterans, earthquake victims and other people surrounded by stress, Dr. Dennis Charney discovered this remarkable result. Finally, optimistic people tend to live longer. Dr. Nir Barzilai of the Einstein’s Institute for Aging Research reveals so after a series of studies on ageing and optimism. This has also been corroborated by many other researches, most notably by Martin Seligman himself.
So, now that I have sufficiently listed out the benefits that optimistic people all over the world seem to enjoy, it is vital that I stress upon the fact that I made earlier. Unlike a lot of other personality traits, that are usually innate and often persist over a lifetime, optimism is something that anyone can learn. In fact training oneself to look at the brighter side of life is a very simple process indeed. Here I will list out two tricks that I learnt from a person called Dennis Waitley, who has been an audio programme called, “The Psychology of Winning”. Dennis Waitley has worked with several high-profile athletes and other professionals and advocates the following two tricks as vital for developing an optimistic outlook.
- The first is very simple, don’t compare yourself to anyone who has something better than you. People often make themselves feel bad by comparing themselves to someone in their life who has it better that themselves. Be it someone who gets a promotion before you do or someone who has a better car. Such a negative comparison is a guaranteed way of making you feel unhappy and downright pessimistic.
Instead of thinking about the people who are ahead of you, try to think about people who are behind you. Compare your situation with someone who has it worse than you in their lives. This is a warranted method for manufacturing optimism in one’s life. So, if a fellow co-worker gets a bonus, don’t think about him or her and compare your situations, instead compare it with people who have salaries less than you.
- The second trick is to think about how far along you have come. Usually when faced with a difficult or challenging task, people become pessimistic by focusing on all the things that they have to accomplish yet. Instead of looking at the amount of work you are still left with, concentrate on how much you have already covered. The CEO of Levis Strauss used to keep a book where he would list down the accomplishments of his company. He recounted this as one of the major motivators of his life.
As you can see, optimism is not just a simple analogy about whether a glass is half-full or half-empty, nor is it about making lemonades from lemons. It is a way of life. A world view, which scientifically leads to people leading happier and longer lives. I end this article with one of my favourite quotes on optimism, a quote by Dr. Suess,
“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”