Whilst we continue to face pandemic-related challenges, optimism can help us cope better. Yet optimism comes with a whole range of other benefits and is great for us, not just good.

What is optimism?

According to Simon Sinek, “optimism is not the denial of the current state. Optimism is the belief that the future is bright”. As Sinek suggests, optimism can be considered a belief system, which means it relates to the thoughts that we have. Our thoughts are incredibly powerful as they drive what we do and how we feel.

Because optimists think that what’s to come will be better, they tend to put more effort into the present. They also try harder when there are setbacks because of their initial belief that things will eventually improve. On the other hand, pessimists don’t tend to have favourable expectations about the future so they put in less effort. And when there are bumps in the road, they’re more likely to give up.

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty

Winston Churchill

How is optimism determined?

There are two ways to work out how optimistic you are. The first looks at how you think about the future and can be measured by the Life Orientation Test (Scheier et al., 1994). The second considers how you explain the past (Seligman, 1990), which is called your explanatory style, and will be covered further here.

Martin Seligman, a clinical psychologist, proposes that when we consider something bad that has happened to us in the past, our brains automatically generate answers to the questions why or what caused that. 

Seligman suggests that pessimists believe that bad events are their fault, are permanent and something that will impact every area of their life. Whereas, optimists consider bad events as external to them, something temporary and specific to that one event. By considering how you explain negative experiences to yourself, will help you work out if you sit in the optimistic or pessimistic camp.

What are the benefits of optimism?

Optimism plays a critical role in how resilient we are and how we manage stress. Optimists tend to be happier and more energetic, they have greater wellbeing, are physically healthier, and have better quality and longer-lasting relationships because they’re easier to be around so more people are drawn to them. They tend to receive better academic grades at school and university, and perform better at sports too. A recent study has also found that optimistic parents can help improve their child’s academic performance.

Why is optimism important at work?

Optimists tend to be more engaged in the workplace so they put in extra effort, they’re highly motivated and try harder, and typically achieve more as a result. Additionally, when optimists see obstacles in the way, they view them as challenges or learning opportunities as Churchill said, and they’re keen to find a solution so they can be overcome. Because of this, they’re more innovative and creative as optimists like to experiment and believe that if things don’t work out, they’re still on the pathway to success.

It’s important for leaders to be optimistic so they can reassure teams during setbacks and be a beacon of hope when the future looks bleak. Research has also found that optimists do well in sales positions as persistence is required to overcome the rejections that are common to the role (Carver et al., 2010). Given this connection, many organisations have started training their sales teams to be more optimistic and they hire sales people that are high in optimism, which has increased their productivity (Schulman, 1999; Seligman, 2011; Seligman & Schulman, 1986).

But of course there are roles where pessimists do better. Typically when the focus is on avoiding risk or preventing mistakes, such as law, civil engineering and some operations and risk management roles. Yet it’s still important for pessimists to consider how they can adopt this approach when it comes to their tasks but be optimistic in other situations. 

Optimism is what I call a velcro construct, to which everything sticks

Chris Peterson

How can optimism be boosted?

Researchers have studied optimists to work out what they’re doing. One factor identified is that optimists tend to be grateful for all that they have, as opposed to being focused on what they don’t have. Gratitude evokes positive emotions, which can help us manage stress, keep energy and motivation high, and strengthen connections across teams. Positivity has also been shown to reduce absenteeism and lead to greater productivity so it’s a critical ingredient for business success! 

Another post explores the activities that individuals can do to practise gratitude. The focus here is on some of the small ways that gratitude can be cultivated as a team by acknowledging efforts and accomplishments (no matter how big or little) by:

  • Expressing gratitude to a colleague by saying it to them via the phone or F2F
  • Writing or texting a team member to let them know why you appreciate them
  • Making your appreciation visible by adding notes to a gratitude wall
  • Starting team meetings with an appreciative round
  • Using formal employee recognition programs.

What is the right amount of optimism?

Like anything, too much optimism can be harmful. For example, having what’s called an optimism bias can cause people to have a false sense of security and underestimate potential risks to themselves. Being too optimistic at work can result in poor planning, a failure to source necessary resources and a reliance on hard work and determination (Compton & Hoffman, 2012; Peterson, 2000).

Realistic optimism is the term used to describe those who are hopeful and positive about the future, but have assessed, understood and accepted their reality, are well aware of potential risks and have developed strategies to help reduce any fallout (Schneider, 2001). The perfect mix!

Increasing optimism as an individual or as a team can take time and effort but hopefully it’s clear why it’s well worth it… The teams that are optimistic will be the ones that will thrive going forward!