Are you an optimist or a pessimist? You may not always see the world through rose-coloured glasses, but chances are you are an optimist. Research indicates that up to 80% of us are. Being optimistic is vitally important in determining how you bounce back from setbacks, how you perceive the world around you and how persistent you are to achieve the things you want to achieve, both in the workplace and in your personal life. But if you fall in the category of 20% of people who are pessimists, there’s some good news. Optimism can be learned.
‘Learned optimism’ is a concept first defined by the leader of the positive psychology movement Martin Seligman. It involves developing the ability to view the world from a positive point of view. According to Seligman, the process of learning to be optimistic is an important way to help maximize mental health and live better lives.
Glass half full or glass half empty?
Pessimists tend to think that bad things are inevitable, that they are at fault, and that negative outcomes will be permanent. Optimists tend to expect that good things will happen to them and see setbacks as temporary events caused by circumstances. Rather than giving up or feeling helpless when failures happen, optimists view them as challenge that can be fixed or overcome.
Knowing where you lie on the optimism scale is important, as is being able to identify where those you work with lie. And you’ll find clues in identifying optimism and pessimism in the language used. Optimists and pessimists differ in the way in which they explain the events that take place in their lives. Key differences in these explanatory styles tend to be centred on:
When things go wrong, optimists are likely to blame external forces or circumstances. Pessimists tend to blame themselves.
When negative things happen, pessimists use language to reflect that they feel the negative event is linked to them, to their own personal failings; “I’m not good at it”, “I am not skilled”, “I have no talent”, “I’m bad at my job”. Optimists, facing the same negative event will use language attributing it to external factors; “It was Jo’s fault”, “You’re not trying”, “I’m not very lucky at board games”, “the market conditions are poor”.
When a positive event happens, pessimists will use language like “I was just lucky” or “we were lucky to have John on our team”, again reflecting their inner thoughts that the positive event must be linked to an external person, place or thing or just good luck. Optimists on the other hand, will use
words like “I’m really lucky”, “I worked really hard to make it happen”, “I’m good at making people laugh”; language that reflects they attribute the positive event to themselves.
Optimists tend to view bad times as temporary. Because of this, they also tend to be better able to bounce back after failures or setbacks. Pessimists are more likely to see negative events as permanent and unchangeable. This is why they are often more likely to give up when things get tough.
When a negative event occurs, the pessimist will use permanent words that indicate they think that the negative event is constant and permanent; words like “all”, “always”, “every” and “never”. When a negative event happens, the optimist will use words like “lately”, “this time”, “sometimes”, or “in that meeting”; words that reveal they feel the negative event is temporary and can be different next time.
The opposite is true for positive events, with pessimists thinking of them as temporary and optimists thinking of them as permanent. When good things happen, the pessimist will use words like “once”, “just that time”, “in that meeting” and “today”. The optimist will use words like “all”, “always”, “never” and “every” to talk about positive events.
Pervasiveness: When optimists experience failure in one area, they do not let it influence their beliefs about their abilities in other areas. Pessimists, however, view setbacks as more pervasive. In other words, if they fail at one thing, they believe they will fail at everything.
When a negative event happens, pessimists will use words like “all politicians are corrupt”, “books are useless” and “I’m not good at anything”. These are global words and when they are used they reflect that person perceives the negative event to be pervading all other aspects of their life.
In the event of a negative thing happening, the optimist will use words like “that politician is corrupt”, “this book is not what I’m looking for”, “at the moment” and “today”. These words are specific and are used to reflect that the person perceives the negative event to be a one-off or associated with one person/thing.
When a positive event happens, the pessimist will use words like “I’m pretty clever with that stuff”, “my kids did well in their last maths exam”. These words are specific, showing a perception that the positive event is a one-off. Optimists will use language like “I’m pretty smart”, “my kids are good at maths”, “I make people laugh”; global words reflecting the person to perceive the positive event to be pervading other aspects of their life.
Knowing your tendencies and your own explanatory style is important first step in identifying whether you are a pessimist or an optimist. In leadership roles, being perceptive of the language individuals in your team use can be a valuable insight into their levels of optimism.
Optimism can be learned so get learning it!
Research suggest that while optimism and pessimism is partially hereditary, optimism levels are also influenced by life experiences and the efforts individuals make to be more optimistic. Anyone can learn these skills, no matter how pessimistic they are to begin with. Let’s explore these techniques next time. Stay tuned…
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