Is optimism nuts?

Optimism can attract scorn from certain quarters, and it's not surprising. But is it actually your superpower?

Optimism can attract scorn from certain quarters, and it's not surprising.

Human beings have a built-in negativity bias that means we are more likely to:

  • Notice;
  • Anticipate;
  • Believe;
  • Give more importance to;
  • Filter for/seek out;
  • React to;
  • Dwell and reflect on; and
  • Recall the negative, than the positive.

That's natural. It's a key component of our survival mechanism, that has kept us alive and safe, until now.

But that part of us that is focused on surviving, does not care about us thriving.

When we do try and move out of negativity, we often stumble because we confuse optimism with positivity, and it can feel fake.

When we are forcing ourselves to be positive in the moment, we tell ourselves to focus on the half of the glass that is full.

That can mean we miss vital information in the present that could lead to better relationships, decision making, integrity, confidence and authentic connection to ourselves, others and what's likely and/or possible.

Positivity can equate to denying reality, and that's where it gets the bad press.

By contrast, healthy optimism is not about the absence of negativity, nor ignoring what is.

Instead, it's the ability to notice it, get curious about it, rationalise it and put plans in place to deal with it; all the while, rising above it to believe in and create what matters to you, your leadership, your organisation, and the wider world.

Optimism is critical to Heartfull Leadership™, peak performance, resilience and inner joy.

It allows you to be in and take action on the 'weeds' of today, while at the same time keeping them from becoming overwhelming and jeopardising your vision and focus on creating an optimistic future.

In some definitions of optimism, it is not even about the future having a positive charge.

Instead, it's a state of neutrality: of not being at the mercy of relying on external sources for your mindset or sense of personal power, but in knowing your own purpose and contribution, and granting that power.

Optimism motivates us, because it gives us certainty over our sense of hope and agency.

It's not rocket science to imagine that your life, career and relationships could be a whole lot more enjoyable, rewarding, purposeful, courageous and sweet, from that place.

If you manage others, you are a leader (whether you give yourself that epithet, or not), so your degree of commitment to healthy optimism has a significant impact on the purpose, performance, motivation and fulfilment of your teams, as well.

According to studies, there are also significant benefits to physical and mental health, longer lifespan and wellbeing, of having an optimistic mindset. (NIA Dec 8th, 2022; Harvard Chan School of Public Health Jun, 2022)

The great news is that optimism can be learnt.

In positive psychology, learned optimism is the opposite of learned helplessness, which can be felt particularly strongly at times of stress, and take us back into states of unresourcefulness and pessimism that we have learned through other experiences in our lives and/or careers.

Thankfully, there are exercises you can practice to build your learned optimism (rather than pessimism) muscles.

Three of my favourites are:

1) Build your awareness of your Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs), intercept them, challenge them and re-write them to serve you. (I have a masterclass and workbook on this, if you'd like to start to learn it for yourself.)

2) Start a daily gratitude journal to begin to shift your focus away from any natural tendency you have to focus and reflect on the negative. Notice the impact it has on you and your relationship with positivity, optimism, negativity and pessimism.

3) Make it important to invest in yourself away from work. Whether that's a healthier diet, more sleep, exercise, time in nature, time with inspiring people or your own personal development, make a commitment to make it happen.

I'm a huge advocate of starting with small habitual changes, rather than overloading yourself and quitting soon after.

So, which one of these can you commit to, today?