how optimistic are you?

06/20/2011

by anne lueneburger


Our friend’s daughter Kylie is seven-years-old and a relentless optimist. When faced with her parent’s breakup, she remained confident that they would get back together, even when they decided to live on different continents. Kylie isn’t exceptional, most kids – before they hit puberty – are endowed with plentiful and possibly irrational hope… Much of their optimism is the result of evolution and biology – making sure that children mature and have the opportunity to procreate when the time comes.

But Kylie is already at an age when her explanatory style is embedding itself – which will have a significant impact on whether she will remain ‘an optimist’ beyond adolescence. Her explanatory style is the way she sees herself, the world, and her interaction with this world. In the face of adversity, does she blame herself or does she attribute it to external circumstances? Does she perceive misfortune to be permanent or temporary? And does she believe that a particular hardship influences her life as a whole, or only parts of her life?

Over time, this way of making sense becomes an entrenched habit of thinking. We use it to explain good and bad things that occur. It becomes a marker of whether we are an optimist or a pessimist, or where we fall on the continuum in between. And, while some situations such as a risky future may require a healthy dose of pessimism, in general optimism is correlated with well-being and success.

Renowned positive psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman has devoted much of his research into finding out why some people in the face of adversity get stuck, and why others bounce back and flourish in life. His book ‘Learned Optimism’ has become a classic and its title confirms what scientific evidence offers: unlike psychological traits such as IQ, optimism can be learned. We have a choice when it comes to seeing the glass half full or half empty!

If you are unsure whether you are an optimist, take Stanford University’s brief assessment on explanatory style. Knowing how you see the world gives you a good lever to gauge if and where you can build more optimism into your life.

In the context of personal leadership, optimistic individuals tend to remain upbeat and enthusiastic about the future, and are more likely to endure the difficult stretches that come with change and transformation. As leaders of others, optimistic individuals are better equipped to conceive and promote a positive future for their teams. They are more likely to inspire change in others. Finally, optimists in general are better equipped to build stronger and more satisfying relationships with their followers.

A final word to those of us who are inherent pessimists: to become an optimist takes practice and does take work, but scientific proof is in: it does work. So, you can pour out your ‘half empty’ glass, and then refill it so that it’s ‘half full’.

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