In general we tend to assume that taking an optimistic approach
to life is a good thing. And it is - to a degree. This article
examines the concepts of optimism/pessimism, and how each
can have advantages to career and life success.
just come off a terrible week; one of those weeks where nothing
seems to go right. How did you react to these events? Here
are three specific examples. Which of the reactions do you
think would be more likely be yours?
On an important night class you get your mid-term results
and find your mark far lower than expected.
a. I'm not
as smart as others in the class
b. That test had a
lot of unexpected and unusual questions.
- You hear that you didn't get a promotion you'd expected.
a. Man, I'll be stuck in this job forever.
b. I'll learn
from this and have a better chance next time.
- At the
end of this terrible week you think...
a. Boy, my life
b. Two setbacks in one week! It's a good
thing something went right.
If you responded to these items with the "b" option, indications
are that you have a more optimistic outlook, and here's why. One way to look
at optimism is to consider the way you respond to negative events in your
life. We look at three types of response:
- Whether or not you take it personally, as in question one in which
you could blame yourself or the test. The pessimist tends to blame himself,
the optimist blames the test.
- The extent to which you see adverse
conditions as permanent or long term. The pessimist will see failure to get
the promotion as long term or even permanent; the optimist as a temporary
extent to which you generalize negative events to affect your entire life.
The pessimist allows negatives to effect her life, while the optimist compartmentalizes
the negative and is able to see life as a combination of negative and positive.
Of course there's a second side to the equation and that's how you respond
to positive events. And the same three types of response are relevant. Except
we reverse them. When things go well, optimists tend to take them personally
(and take the credit). Optimists also tend see positive events as long term
or permanent, and allow them to affect their entire lives. Pessimists tend
to do just the opposite.
Think back to recent events in your life. How have
you responded? To what extent do you think you are optimistic or pessimistic?
Most of us like to think of ourselves as somewhat optimistic because, intuitively
it appears to make sense that being optimistic leads to greater life satisfaction.
And in many ways this is true. However there are a couple of exceptions to
the rule that should be considered.
Most research on optimism/pessimism suggests
that optimists are happier, healthier and more successful. However, there is
one important exception to the rule. When making decisions in ambiguous situations,
pessimists tend to make more accurate and practical decisions. In other words,
they tend to be right more often and in many cases make more practical decisions.
A second exception relates to the degree of optimism or pessimism. I've found
that at extreme levels either can be detrimental. Take optimism for example.
An extreme optimist may never take responsibility when things go wrong. They
may believe that good times will never end, and there is no need to plan for
potential future setbacks. Therefore extreme optimism can lead to problems.
I've coined the phrases "realistic optimist, and realistic pessimist".
Both conditions will bring some life satisfaction and success. Neither will
act as a barrier. (It may be a matter of choosing whether you'd prefer to be
a realistic pessimist who may make better life decisions, or a realistic optimist
who tends to be happy more often.)
Whenever I've discussed this concept in
a workshop I ask participants, now that they understand it a little better,
to think about their own situation and ask themselves if they are happy with
their current place on the optimism/pessimism continuum. Many are and see no
reason to change. Of those who decide to change, the overwhelming majority
decide to work on their thought patterns to become more optimistic. Which to
me makes sense, because I believe most people would prefer to be happy than
right. What do you think?
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