Choosing Optimism

When you ask others about their business or work, particularly when the market conditions are less than optimal, you’ll mostly hear them complain. They will give you reasons for why their business is not doing well because of the poor economy and so on, which is basically reactive talk. What they don’t realize is that market is what it is: there are ups and downs. There is nothing they can do to change it directly. That said, they can acknowledge the poor market conditions and forecast how bad things could possibly get in the future, and only then can they figure out what they are going to do about it to stay in business.

You’ll find that we focus less on the last two things — especially the last one. We often talk about things outside our control, but why do we talk about it when there is nothing we can do about it directly? Why don’t we use our energy to focus on what we can do in our business/work to stay relevant in the market despite the sub-optimal conditions (which we can’t control anyway)? I find that is a far more proactive approach. Of course, the naysayers will tell you to face the reality and to stop fooling yourself. What they don’t get is that you have faced the facts in the present, you’ve figured out the worst that could possibly happen, and then you’re focusing on things you can do to stay in business.

While pessimists blame themselves for situations that occur in their lives, optimists blame bad events/situations on causes outside of themselves. Optimists don’t let one bad event in one aspect of their life define or affect their entire life; instead, they isolate it as a single event and move on without letting it affect their internal locus of control. Similarly, they allow positive things in one area of their lives to brighten up other areas.

Optimistic people look at the upside of every situation, especially the difficult ones, while pessimists dwell on the downsides of each situation and remain stuck. They focus on what is in their control rather than worry or complain about what is not. Optimists have also been known to bounce back quickly from failure without letting it affect their entire life, while pessimists may take longer or, in some cases, never recover from their past.

Optimists are also known to make value-based choices. When it comes to making everyday decisions, they rely less on their impulses and more on their values, which is where their choices come from. Instead of being a product of their environment, they choose to see their environment as a product of their efforts.

Here are a few reasons why we should choose to be optimistic.

We are naturally drawn to those who are happy, optimistic, and make us feel good about ourselves. No one wants to be around negative and pessimistic people. Optimists attract other optimists while pessimists will attract others like themselves.

As optimists, we are more likely to be resilient in the face of setbacks and adversity, meaning we can quickly bounce back from failure. We are more likely to dwell on the past and remain stuck as pessimists. Optimistic people have also been known to be more confident, have better health, and are generally happier people; they also tend to live longer.

As optimists, we are able to do far better work and make more money than our pessimistic counterparts. Our customers love us not because of the quality and service we provide; those are prerequisites to almost any business, not to mention there are many others who deliver the exact same kind of service, if not better and for much less money. The reason our customers do business with us is because they like us and what we believe about our work resonates with them at a much deeper level than any monetary discount can provide. We are also happy and positive to be around, and it’s because of this that our customers will look for ways to work with us in the future.

Martin Seligman, an American psychologist, writes in his book, Learned Optimism, that we can learn to be more optimistic, positive, and happy in our daily lives. He suggests using the Ellis ABC model of adversity, belief, and consequence. Adversity is the event that happens, belief is how we think/interpret the event, while consequence is the feeling/action that comes from the belief. Seligman added D and E to the ABC model, where D stands for disputation and E stands for energization. Disputation would mean providing counter evidence to the events that you’ve been thinking about, thinking of ways to move beyond them, and even giving others the benefit of the doubt, all of which will likely lead to energization (or celebration) of having successfully not only moved on from the past (events), but also celebrating it after the fact. The benefit of sharing this model with others (especially children) is that they don’t have to work on being optimistic; rather, optimism just becomes a way of their life without them having to think about it.

You can even take the Learned Optimism Test (adapted from Seligman’s book) to determine your optimism level.

Here’s an example to put this in perspective. Let’s take a drastic example from Anand, a Hindi film in which the protagonist has a few months to live and he knows it. He can either decide to feel pity for himself, succumb to the illness, and give up and waste whatever time is remaining for him in the hospital bed, OR he can make the best of whatever time is available to him while doing the best he can and enjoying life to the fullest, because he knows that life should be big, not long.

That is a choice only proactive people can make. They never complain or give excuses. They know where they are headed. They just try to figure out how they need to get there. In that sense, optimism is a means to get there. They will never tell you that things are not working. They know they can either be a part of the problem or the solution. They can either accept things or change them. They choose to focus on changing things that are under their control and things with which they can influence others indirectly.

How we talk to ourselves about the events that happen in our lives can make a big difference. The words we use and the tone in which we use them will indicate our level of optimism or pessimism at any given time. I am reminded of the Epictetus quote here, which I paraphrase: it’s not the events in our lives that disturb us, but how we perceive or think about them. We are quick to give things labels such as good or bad, positive or negative. But things just are. How we feel about them is our choice, and is totally under our control.

The events or situations in our lives are simply events or situations. How we think about them affects our mood, attitude, and behavior. When we can’t let go of our past (for whatever reason), we implicitly choose to remain captive to those past thoughts.

Default to the positive in any situation. Always give others the benefit of the doubt. Always question their intent first and actions later (and do the reverse with yourself).

What we believe determines our attitude, which in turn determines our behavior. Henry Ford said it best:

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.

Use daily affirmations for things that you want to have true in your life.

If you say it out aloud in the morning that today will be a great day, it’s more likely to happen. Conversely, when you wake up and say that it’s just another day to grind through, guess what? That’s how the day will go for you.

Another example. When we believe that we can do something or make something happen, we need to focus on the How rather than worry or complain about things that are not working. We need to focus on doing what’s possible to make it happen and ignore the rest. Army soldiers are trained to focus on making things happen from their group leader’s strategic plans. When Plan A doesn’t work, they move to Plan B, and so on. You’ll never find them complaining or whining.

Conversely, when we believe that bad things happen to us all the time and for a reason, we implicitly choose to be victims of our situations and are less likely to do something about them. We have neither accepted the reality of our situations fully nor chosen to do something about them.

Taking that idea a step further, we need to track our progress in our personal and work lives. We need to celebrate our wins rather than dwell on our failures (but learn from them). One way to do that is write the things you accomplished today at the end of the day. When we are reflecting on things, we can review them in terms of things that are working for us and things we can do better. You’ll see there is no negative feedback here (such as things that are not working) for a reason.

Accept things or change them. The problem comes when most of us are conflicted about things in our lives and we either try to stay in the middle or try to do both without having made an explicit choice; this is insanity. Either accept things the way they are if you can’t do anything about them (and make your peace with it and move on), or change them if there is something you can do about them. Stop trying to do both. Rather than waste your energies on things outside your control, focus on things that are possible for you to do something about.

Be grateful for who you are, what you do, and what you have (rather than complain about who you are not or what you don’t have). I wrote about this in my draft on practicing gratitude and how that leads to our happiness, which in turn leads to our success (the way we define it ourselves). A lot of people have this backwards. They fall into the “I’ll be happy when…” trap. This way they might never get there. In any case, we cannot let things outside of us determine our happiness. Accept yourself the way you are, but don’t let that come in the way of your growth. Focus on being your best self.

Be mindful of who you spend the most time with. We tend to become like those that we spend the most time with. For instance, you’re more likely to be optimistic when you’re around happy, positive, and successful people, rather than pessimistic people. While the latter will drain your energy, the former will energize you and open up new possibilities in your mind for an exciting life. Reflect briefly on your conversations with people you meet afterwards. That will tell you whether to spend more or no time with them in the future.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the downsides of being too optimistic. Researchers have found that optimism works best in moderation, while excessive optimism can lead to poor economic choices.

Contrary to popular belief, optimism is not about being oblivious to one’s problems. Also, let’s not confuse optimism with lack of action or living in denial; that’s just empty or excessive optimism. Being optimistic is great as long as it doesn’t prevent us from seeing our situations (reality) with clarity. Ideally, we hope for the events in our lives to be best, but we prepare for the worst at the same time. Optimism is only the starting point, and it alone is not a panacea for all of life’s troubles. Being optimistic is good as long as you’re facing reality and doing something about it.

Then there’s optimism bias, which is that we are at a lesser risk of experiencing negative events compared to others. For instance, smokers may delude themselves into thinking they are at a lesser risk of contracting heart diseases compared with other smokers.

Here’s the thing: things, situations, and circumstances happen. How we orient ourselves to them is our choice. They don’t have access to our minds. It’s how we think of them that makes the difference. We can choose to see our situations and circumstances from an optimistic view. Notice how the pessimistic people are always quick to tell you to stop kidding yourself, see the facts; to them, negativity is always the reality. That’s how they choose to see it. If you think about it, there is only one way to do things. The choice is yours. Choose optimism.

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