Be More Optimistic, Extra Smiling Not Required
by Valerie W. Franco
Positivity is a characteristic that increases resilience. Often clients respond by saying “I’m a realist”, which is reasonable since we know that life is not fair, and things don’t always turn out the way we want. Biology also causes us to focus on the negative as a form of survival. For example, how our ancestors narrowly avoided being eaten by a lion was much more important to remember than the lovely flowers along the path.
What is the upside to having a more positive mindset? The first reason is because it’s good for our health. Positive thoughts stimulate a chemical reaction in our bodies that improves health and well-being, whereas worry and stress release harmful chemicals that will make us sick over time.
Another benefit is improving outcomes. Our words and actions originate in our minds. Sports coaches have realized this and do visualization exercises with athletes. By mentally seeing themselves scoring the goal or running the perfect race, the higher their odds of bringing that vision to life during the competition. The same is true for business presentations, family outings, and meeting new people. Visualizing the event going well increases the odds that it will.
Let’s go back to the realism topic. Being optimistic does not prevent sadness, grief or negative outcomes in our lives; and it is important to process those feelings. Trying to eliminate negative emotions by stuffing them down and painting on a smile is also not good for our wellbeing. The role of positivity in this situation is holding on the hope of better days ahead. It’s a both/and scenario requiring us to hold our grief or sadness in one hand to cope with what has happened, and in the other hand is hope for brighter days ahead. Finding that hope can sometimes seem impossible, and gratitude is one way to get there.
Finally, we can’t talk about optimism without recalling what Jim Collin’s dubbed “the Stockdale paradox” in his book Good to Great. James Stockdale survived being a prisoner of war for seven years during the Vietnam War. Enduring the torture, near starvation, and severe injuries suffered required immense resilience traits including connection to the other prisoners, a clear moral compass regarding his purpose as a Navy officer, along what he called ‘realistic optimism’ i.e. the Stockdale Paradox. During those horrible years of captivation, Stockdale could never lose hope of being released, nor could he set his mind on a specific date for release. He described watching other prisoners set their hearts on being home for Christmas, and when that didn’t happen, devastation overtook them.
Being optimistic improves our lives physically and emotionally. The first step is noticing your “self-talk”. Pay attention to times that you jump to the negative outcome and question your thinking: Is there evidence to support this perspective? What are other possibilities? Is the situation as bad as I think? Next try flipping the narrative to a positive view and notice what changes. Journaling will help you stay on track. Second, writing down the things you are grateful for each day will re-wire your brain for positivity.