Half-full and half empty glass is the proverbial optimism test which we all are familiar with. We all look down on people who identify themselves as a pessimist and think of it as some sort of a disease, needing a cure. However, is pessimism evil or is optimism the utopia we all should live in.
Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology has written many books on optimism, a famous one being ‘Learned Optimism’. In the book, he mentions his research at Met Life, where the company was struggling with attrition despite spending huge amount of money in training its people.
Being short on staff, the company hired a few people below the cut-off point. When they analyzed the performance of the employees, they found out that optimistic people have outsold pessimists by more than 31%.
Another interesting finding was that employees who failed the tests, but scored well on optimism test did 57% better than the pessimists in the second year implying optimism was a big factor in their improved performance.
Optimism is also attributed to better career prospects, satisfaction with one’s job and a better life overall.
However, if the optimism is so good for us, why did we evolve with pessimism as an important trait?
Well, there seem to be some evolutionary benefits to being a pessimist. In her book ‘The Positive Power of Negative Thinking’, Julie Norem describes Defensive Pessimism.
According to her, when we think about possible negative future outcomes, the thought also pushes us to come up with a plan or strategy to avoid it. Our mind then is able to also focus on ways to overcome possible challenges.
A consistently optimistic approach may lead us to committing mistakes without allowing us time to rethink on our strategy and its possible shortcomings. Pessimism might help in such a scenario.
The one thing needed to be kept in mind while we evaluate our options,though, is to not let the thought become catastrophic and overbearing. The results become disastrous when we let the negative thoughts overpower us without coming up with a strategy to overcome those problems.
Optimists on the other hand, though after tasting repeated success may become overly confident, losing a realistic view of things. A research on young people found out that people with positive fantasies are less likely to pursue those goals as most of their energies get drained out while imagining those positive outcomes.
A healthy mix of optimism with controlled pessimism is the way to go forward.
However, if one is unduly pessimistic, the chances of success dim even further. So, is it possible to learn optimism? Martin Seligman in his book spelt out certain things, which we can do to learn optimism. I won’t be able to out down everything over here and for that would rather suggest you to read his book, a classic which I am sure you will love.
A Few things you can do to learn optimism
- Challenge the efficacy of the negative self-talk. Most of the negative thoughts in our mind are just imaginary. They stay there only to never happen for real. However, they do take away the peace of our mind and one thing we can do to get rid of them is to question their basis and utility.
If you think, you can’t get a better job or a spouse or convince your children to behave in a better way, try to search for contrary examples of where you were able to accomplish these things. This will reduce space for such thoughts in your mind, forcing them ultimately to abandon your brain.
- Being thankful for what you have or accomplished is one way to become optimistic. Counting your blessings can keep pessimism at bay.
- Your skills and abilities can be used in multiple places. Instead of thinking about your uselessness, try to think of how you can use the existing repertoire of skills in different situations and people. Just a slightly twisted thinking can help in changing pessimism into optimism.
- Look for past instances of triumph in your life and use it as an example to drive away any contradictory thoughts.
Pessimism and optimism both have their pros and cons. We evolved with pessimism as it allowed us to survive by stockpiling meat and berries as we envisioned harsh winters. Optimism helped us getting further as we developed a belief to be back after the hunt. Both served us well in the past and will continue to do so in the future provided we take control and are aware of our own thoughts.
So, which side are you on – Optimism or Pessimism, do let me know.