I have a friend who refers to me as the “terminal” optimist. He is not. We laugh about it. From time to time in my life I have had to temper my optimism with a dose or two of logic; or talk to someone that was more of a ‘realist.’ By and large, however, I have a pretty good grasp of reality while remaining optimistic.
I was blessed with a mother who was an optimist, even though she suffered from depression later in life. My brother and grandmother also suffered from depression; there was no guarantee that I would be optimistic. Mom could often see the bright side of a situation, and I benefited from being around that energy.
My teenage years were full of many ups and downs. I recognized some of my tendency for negative thinking. In my early twenties I developed the “48-hour rule” – I would not allow myself to be in a negative (or ‘down’) place for longer than 48 hours. In the 49th hour, if I was still down I would indicate that I was ‘awesome’ even if I had to ‘fake it until I made it.’ It worked. I observed in me how my inner energy shifted when I responded positively.
So how does optimism affect us as human beings and leaders? Let’s explore it and see.
As we head into the holiday season my hope for you is that yours will be filled with all of your favorite things, all your favorite people, and that your food will be exceptional.
Be well and do your best work,
Optimists At Work
“Optimism is an essential ingredient of innovation. How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in safe places.” Robert Noyce, co-founder Intel
Optimism is one of the things measured as part of Emotional Intelligence. “Optimism is the ability to look at the brighter side of life and to maintain a positive attitude and outlook on life. It involves remaining hopeful and resilient, despite occasional setbacks.” (Emotional Intelligence Development Guide – ADVISA).
Being ‘hopeful’ is a key ingredient in leadership. In fact, being hopeful is a key ingredient in living period. It involves looking at a situation and being confident that you/we can deal with it, solve for it, know that ‘this too shall pass.’
What does science say about optimism? Dr. John Medina, an affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine, explains it this way:
“If you slip into a clinical depression, all kinds of rotten things happen to you. Here’s one. Your immune system begins to go offline. As a result, cortisol levels–stress hormones–begin to rise. Stress hormones attack a very particular cell type in the immune system called a CD4 positive cell [white blood cells that play an important role in your immune system]. If you are depressed, cortisol levels go way, way up. When they go up, your ability to mount a sustained and effective response against infectious diseases goes down. As importantly, your ability to fight certain cancers goes down and the ability for you to maintain cardiovascular health goes down. Put all those things together and it’s almost a guarantee to live a shorter life. The ability for you to stay optimistic produces a buffer against your probability of experiencing depression.”
Optimism not only reduces stress, but it also promotes the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine. “Dopamine packs a serious wallop,” Medina says. He likens dopamine to the ignition system in your car. “Insert the key into the lock, and the car springs to life.” Dopamine makes us happy, increases motivation. …Dopamine is a big deal. Simply put, optimism reduces the bad stuff and elevates the good stuff.”
Optimism is about positive energy. In my journey to being more optimistic I recognized how much better it felt to find the ‘silver lining’ in situations than it was to dwell on the negative. I remember a conversation I had with a friend. He asked me, “How can you find the silver lining in EVERYTHING?! I answered, “Why would I not want to? I am more energized thinking about the positive than I am everything that could go wrong.”
I also found that that optimism translates well to leadership. Great leaders know things will get better because they themselves will make them better. That energy creates a positive impact on others. They tend to get the most out of others because their people believe the optimist will make them better. The optimist’s positive energy inspires those around them to give and do their best.
So how do we learn to be optimistic? Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, pioneered two exercises to help us. The first is called the Gratitude Visit. Identify someone who means a lot to you. Write that person a 300-word letter that concretely explains how that person influenced your life. Visit that person and read the letter to them. Seligman’s research found an immediate boost in the writer’s happiness that lasted a week after the visit and lingered for another month.
The second exercise is called the Three Good Things. Each day write down three good things that happened. Next to each write down why it happened. While this may take longer to show the type of affect that the Gratitude Visit did, it has been shown to feed the brain with a positive habit.
In general, I have found it helpful to pay attention to what I am thinking and feeling. I found it important to notice what I’m thinking and feeling and work to resolve certain issues in my life that were difficult. Sometimes that required professional help.
I have found yoga and reflective time alone to be very helpful in getting to a more relaxed state. Over time I learned to limit the critical self-talk, and to spend time forgiving myself. Self-care is a critical component to finding a more positive place.
Noticing and savoring the good things in my life has been helpful. Gratitude helps me to recognize all the blessings I have in my life. I have had friends in recovery. They would tell me that the first thing an addict loses is their gratitude. That makes sense to me, as I know what happens to me when I fail to practice gratitude.
One final subtlety in remaining positive is choosing to be around people who give me energy. There are enough things in life that deplete us. Being able to create and sustain positive relationships recognizes our interconnectedness in life and helps us to weather the tougher spots.
Science has demonstrated that optimism exerts a lot of power in our life. It helps us to live longer, to be more vibrant and creative as we age.
When I was more disposed to being depressed, I chose to become more active; to help change my brain chemistry. It helped me shift my focus. It’s not always that easy, and having not ever been clinically depressed I don’t fully understand all the dynamics. I have found that deciding to be more positive has allowed me to be more positive and to bring that energy to the things I do and the people I encounter. For me, it is a preferable way to live and work. How’s your optimism today?
To your journey and living out the best version of you…
Of Interest: Optimism and living longer https://www.today.com/health/how-live-longer-study-links-optimism-longevity-t161337