Learn how to lighten your outlook
Deena Kara Shaffer
Have you ever looked on in awe, or with envy, at the positivity of others? Have you wondered why certain friends or family members seem uniquely upbeat? It turns out that optimism is a skill that can be learned.
How do you explain to yourself why a situation went the way it did? Our explanatory styles can lean toward the optimistic (hopeful) or the pessimistic (cynical). Did you know optimism is a skill that can be learned? Have you ever looked on in awe, or with envy, at the positivity of others? Have you wondered why certain friends or family members seem uniquely upbeat? How is it that some colleagues appear naturally buoyant? Optimism isn’t just genetics or good fortune; it’s an empowering skill—one that comes with many benefits to our well-being.
Put simply, optimists are people who believe good things will happen to them; pessimists are people who believe bad things will happen to them. Optimism is “the positive expectation and hopeful attitude we bring to our experiences,” explains Dr. Diana Brecher, Positive Psychology Scholar-in-Residence with Ryerson University’s Student Affairs, and innovator behind Ryerson’s campus-wide ThriveRU resilience initiative.
Our explanatory style is the way in which we explain things—events, circumstances, and consequences—to ourselves. It’s our inside voice that chimes in about whether, for example, we deserve whatever good just happened.
Inspired by the work of renowned positive psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, Brecher describes how explanatory styles are “the ways in which we attribute cause and effect. Optimists and pessimists interpret the same event differently and attribute causality in opposite ways.”
An optimist will recognize their role in fostering a good result, believe that it could continue, and see those positive effects infusing other areas of their life. When something unpleasant or negative happens, an optimist understands this as temporary and situation-specific.
A pessimist, in contrast, will explain away good things that occur as being short-lived and happenstance; in that same vein, a pessimist believes that a negative event is permanent, pervasive, and largely their fault or even deserved.
Moving the dial toward optimism isn’t about shirking responsibility for harm we cause or simplifying all life events into “good” or “bad”; nor is optimism reserved for those with fewer demands or stressors. Optimism is a learnable skill and a key component for personal and professional flourishing.
Research shows that optimism can have profound effects on our health. First, because optimism is the very opposite of hopelessness, optimists may be less at risk for depressive disorders. What’s more, there is evidence to indicate that optimists are more resilient in the face of stressful life events. Put simply, an optimistic outlook can help us cope.
Optimism is a protective factor for both mental and physical health. It not only can act as a buffer for the stresses and hassles of the day to day, but also can serve as a buoy during the toughest life events, including sickness or disease. Study after study indicates an optimistic outlook may improve physical health, from improved immune function to faster recovery from illness, not to mention longevity—optimists also live longer!
Research also underscores how optimists show higher levels of effort toward achieving their goals, whereas pessimists are likelier to withdraw or disengage from attempts at achieving a goal. Studies of students, and of entrepreneurs, both reveal the benefits of adopting an optimistic outlook. Furthermore, studies of athletes reveal that optimism is a very important variable in predicting success.
So, why not? Opt for optimism and practise seeing the glass half full!
Holding an optimistic outlook is a skill. The first step is to “notice that you have defaulted into your pessimistic frame of reference. Then, have [these] six questions handy. You can mobilize yourself into action by answering them,” explains Dr. Diana Brecher, Positive Psychology Scholar-in-Residence with Ryerson University’s Student Affairs.
Brecher’s six questions can help people flip from a pessimistic to an optimistic frame of reference.
She encourages people in good times to ask:
1. What role did I play in making this happen? 2. How can I make the good times continue? 3. What can I do to have this spill over into other aspects of my life?
To deepen this optimistic practice, Brecher invites people to ask themselves in bad times:
1. In what way is this also the responsibility of others or circumstances beyond my control? 2. How can I keep this temporary? 3. What must I do to contain the damage of the long-term effects of this event?