Updated: Sep 30
Let me ask you a question,
Imagine yourself in 12 months’ time, October 2021... what do you see, what are you doing?
Now, imagine the nation’s future in twelve months, what do you see?
Interestingly, research by Roser & Nagdy (2018), concluded we are often more optimistic about ourselves than we are about our nation’s future.
Paul Dolan, professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, asserts one of the reasons for our national pessimism will be recent events in society - COVID-19. So, what do you think, will we be a nation of optimists or pessimists in 2021?
As a psychologist I am often asked by my clients ‘Why is optimism so important?’
One answer I give is: “You’ll live longer and be more satisfied with your life”.
A longitudinal study published in the Nature Journal this year reveals that Pessimism is associated with greater rates of cardiovascular mortality (Whitfield et al, 2020).
A similar study by the Mayo Clinic shows that pessimists have a 19% more chance of dying prematurely.
Both studies are an example of “self-fulfilling prophecies”. A pessimist looks to the future and says: “I’m going to die”. An optimist looks to the future full of enthusiasm, dreams, and plans. They say, “I’ve got a lot of living to do before I die.” Both statements invariably come to fruition.
A second reason why optimism is important in a pandemic is because it affects our level of motivation, affects our resilience and our life satisfaction.
Dispositional optimism, a theory developed by two psychologists, Carver and Scheier back in the 1990’s showed that optimism had a positive influence on our level of motivation and life satisfaction (2014). Optimism will motivate you to get up again after a setback, after a crisis, after this pandemic is over.
Studies show that our level of perseverance and GRIT is also influenced by our level of optimism (Duckworth, 2007). We need it to persevere and stand strong through the lockdowns, through the social distancing, and through the isolation and loss of contact with loved ones.
Optimism and pessimism affect the cognitive functioning of the brain (Sergerstrom et al, 2017). - Optimists set goals to focus on improving life satisfaction, happiness and removing barriers in life.
- Pessimists plan for the worst and sets goals to reduce risks and reduce disappointments in life.
Let’s imagine that neither the optimist nor the pessimist died from the virus i.e. they both survived the COVID-19 pandemic and are living through the various restrictions and lockdown levels until told otherwise. It is conceivable and probable, that their resulting satisfaction levels will be completely different.
Which one do you think will have more stress, worry more and, less motivation to adapt to the new world after the Coronavirus? The pessimist.
Which one will be celebrating with their neighbours e.g. singing from balconies to cheer their neighbours, or putting a bear in their window to bring a smile to a child’s face? Which one will be planning for 2021 as a time to revitalise their life and business to ensure 2021 will be better than 2020? The optimist.
The final question my clients ask me is: “Can you learn optimism?”
Yes, you can. Try these techniques:
1. Building your own definition and narrative around being an optimist is a meaningful way to create your own optimism and inspire your team or family to be optimistic.
You can begin by asking them to describe ‘what type of actions, expressions, thoughts etc would engender a more optimistic spirit?’ This positive inquiry questioning technique is often used by psychologists and coaches to uncover deep seeded beliefs and values and to reveal new directions for growth.
If you have team members or a work culture that consistently focuses on ‘the problem’ or ‘finding fault’ and ‘issuing blame for the mess’ you are working in a pessimistic environment. Turning this around can start with you focussing on and expressing the more optimistic viewpoint and asking a similar positive inquiry question i.e. What’s the solution for solving this issue? or What can we all do to fix this? Or What do we need to solve this?
2. Share good news stories with your team and family.
Look for what is working during COVID-19. Start your day and your meetings on what his going well so far. Ask: “What’s one positive that happened last week?”
This does not mean you do not address the issue or problems; it is the way you do it to ensure your thinking and decisions are balanced in a time of crisis.
3. Show gratitude and give recognition to others for their efforts during the crisis.
4. Savour the small moments.
5. Stay focused on short terms goals and celebrate the small wins.
A good exercise as a team would be to use the “STOP, START, CONTINUE” method. This ensures optimism is a part of your future planning. Many of my clients have adopted this method during the pandemic and it has helped engage their teams in constructive optimistic conversations about the future of their work. You start by listing all the things you want to start doing, stop doing & keep (continue) doing. Discussion can then focus on the plan of implementation.
6. Request free micro lesson on Optimism here.
All the best,
Paul Saunders is a Psychologist who works with business leaders and their teams in times of change and growth.
Carver, C.S. & Scheier, M.F. (2014) Dispositional Optimism. Trends Cognitive Science June 2014. 18(6) 293-299.
Duckworth AL. Grit: Perseverance and passion for long term goals. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2007;1087-98.
Segerstrom, S. C., Carver, C. S., and Scheier, M. F. (2017). “Optimism,” in The Happy Mind: Cognitive Contributions to Well-Being, eds M. D. Robinson and M. Eid (Cham: Springer International Publishing), 177–193.
Whitfield, J. et al (2020) Pessimism is associated with greater all‑cause and cardiovascular mortality, but optimism is not protective.