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  • Writer's pictureReflective Resources

O is for optimism

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

“Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the airplane the pessimist invents the parachute.” George Bernard Shaw

What is an optimist?

Always look on the bright side of life” Monty Python

For me, an optimist is someone that seems to naturally, or has learned to, accept life and focuses on the positive in the world. They are grateful and hopeful and confident about the future, expecting good things to happen when they have taken steps to create opportunities or control what they can e.g. their attitude.

“I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.” Walt Disney

Optimism isn’t about denial or being oblivious to the bad stuff, rather optimism defines how we interpret and think about ourselves and the world around us, by taking responsibility and being aware about how much control we do have in a situations.

"While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us". Benjamin Franklin

Being an optimist is a conscious choice.

"I am an optimist… I choose to be. There is a lot of darkness in our world, there is a lot of pain and you can choose to see that or you can choose to see the joy. If you try to respond positively to the world, you will spend your time better." Tom Hiddleston

Optimists aren't happy all the time and pessimists aren't unhappy all the time. Every person experiences a range of emotions; good and bad, positive and negative. We are all on a continuum; the difference is how we deal with those emotions.

“True hopefulness and optimism is what leads one to dare. It is also what lifts one back up to dare again after a failed attempt. Bibi Bourelly

We can all experience initial negative thoughts but it is our choice what our second thoughts are and how we determine to respond. We are responsible for the amount we allow events to affect our view on life and how much we move around on this continuum will depend on our outlook and approach in life, the mindset and habits we have.

"It’s not that optimism solves all of life’s problems; it is just that it can sometimes make the difference between coping and collapsing." Lucy MacDonald

Optimists have a growth mindset and see failures or setbacks as temporary events caused by circumstances, as learning opportunities or challenges that can be reframed, overcome or fixed and in so doing, they tend to bounce back quicker and become more resilient. Most importantly, when optimists experience failure in one area, they manage to retain a healthy perspective and do not let it influence their beliefs about their abilities in other areas

"Optimism is joyful searching; pessimism is a prison of fear and a clutching at illusionary safety". Kathleen A. Brehony

The opposite of an optimist is a pessimist who tends to believe bad things are bound to happen, that they or others are at fault, the world is against them and that negative outcomes will be permanent and unchangeable. This is why they are often more likely to give up or feel helpless when things get tough. Pessimists are more likely to blame themselves or others for what they see as the unfortunate events in their lives and can see setbacks as pervasive, believing that if they fail at one thing, they will fail at everything. When they have a persistent negative perspective, pessimists can develop a learned helplessness, and give up believing that anything they do will make any difference.

Another way that you can notice a tendency towards optimism or pessimism is that optimists and pessimists tend to differ in terms of how they describe the events that take place in their lives. These differences tend to be centred on the three P’s: permanence, personalisation and pervasiveness.

Every cloud has a silver lining” vs “Every rose has its thorn

Why be optimistic?

"Optimism is invaluable for a meaningful life. With a firm belief in a positive future you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are." Martin Seligman

Studies have shown that taking an optimistic stand point has many advantages.

Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” Colin Powell

Optimism helps us to see new opportunities, to learn from different situations and develops in us a growth mindset which is essential in life. A positive attitude of gratitude and hope helps us become happier, more successful, and healthier.

Chose to be optimistic, it feels better.” Dalai Lama X1V

Adopting an optimistic approach can have a positive effect on our well being . It can protect against depression, making us more resistant to stress and enable us cope with it better.

It has been shown that optimists have generally better health outcomes for serious diseases; they have better mental health, tend to be more resilient and recover from setbacks more quickly. Studies also show that being optimistic can even help people live longer.

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.

Noam Chomsky

Rather than becoming overwhelmed and discouraged by negative events, an optimistic approach will focus on making positive changes that will improve life. Optimists have a higher motivation because they focus on the positive changes that they can make to help themselves reach their goals or change their lives rather than focusing on the negative and what they can’t change or do not have control over.

"Optimism is essential to achievement and it is also the foundation of courage and true progress." Nicholas M. Butler

Can you learn to be optimistic?

"The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Learned optimism is a concept introduced by Martin Seligman and emerged out of positive psychology. By learning to be optimistic we maximize our mental health and live better lives.

Optimism requires action on our part You cannot flourish just by trying to think positively it is a process that requires action on your part. If you want to flourish, positive thinking and optimism has to be accompanied by coherent behaviours and actions.

"Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward".

Nelson Mandela

Researchers suggest that optimism levels are not only partially hereditary but they are also influenced by childhood environment e.g. experiences of parental affection, financial stability etc. Seligman suggests however that anyone can learn to be optimistic, no matter how pessimistic they are, to start with.

Whatever we choose to focus on is likely to be the catalyst behind all of our actions and emotions. Optimism is a strength that we all possess and with intention we can make it a priority in their lives. We all have the ability to wake up each and every morning and decide if we are wanting to focus on all that is right in our lives, or if we want to focus on all that is wrong.

According to Martin Seligman, there is an optimal time to develop optimism late i.e. enough in childhood so that kids have the meta-cognitive skills to think about their own thoughts, but prior to the onset of puberty which is why I think that these skills ought to be taught in schools as part of personal/social development.

"Self-belief, optimism, and hard work, these things don’t guarantee to get any of us to the top, but they at least give us a fighting chance." Jason Ayres

Martin Seligman's approach to learning optimism is based upon cognitive –behavioural techniques developed by Aaron Beck and Rational Emotive Behavioural therapy created by Albert Ellis. (Both approaches focus on identifying the underlying negative thoughts that influence behaviour and then actively challenging those beliefs).

If you focus on the negative that’s what your life will become but by choosing to focus on the good rather than difficulties, you won’t spend your whole life wondering ‘Why do bad things keep happening to me?’ By consciously choosing optimism and to make the most out of the opportunities in front of you it will open more doors for you than being a pessimist ever will.

Seligman's approach to learning optimism follows an "ABCDE" approach

Adversity: Think about the situation that calls for a response

Belief: Think about our thoughts and how we interpret the event

Consequence: Reflect on the way that we act, respond, or feel in response to our thoughts

Disputation: Here we challenge the beliefs we have and consider whether such beliefs are logical etc or help us towards or away from our aim. We need to look for examples that prove us wrong and challenge our initial assumptions

Energisation: This it the outcome that emerges from challenging our beliefs and changing our mindset

Characteristics of an optimistic person

"Wherever you go, no matter what the weather, always bring your own sunshine."

Anthony D'Angelo

Optimists tend to be self-aware and self effacing. They are honest with themselves and work on themselves to become the best they can be.

"Optimism inspires, energizes, and brings out our best. It points the mind toward possibilities and helps us think creatively past problems." Price Pritchett

Optimists are grateful and interested in others and know that surrounding themselves with like-minded people is important. Optimists don’t waste energy comparing themselves with others and try to accept others for who and where they are, understanding the importance of forgiveness.

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” Helen Keller

Optimists are self- motivated. They are realists who set achievable goals and work towards them, seeing failures as opportunities for growth and learning. (There are lots of useful links below for further suggested traits).

“For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use to be anything else.”

Winston Churchill

Some questions to think about/or discuss below:

Where are you on the optimist or pessimist continuum?

What can I do to stop negative thoughts being the norm?

What practical technique can I put in place to stop my thoughts going into a downward


Examples of optimism:

There are lots of examples of optimism in idioms and popular phrases:

  • Every cloud has a silver lining

  • Seeing the glass as half full instead of half empty.

  • When life hands you lemons, make lemonade

Can you think of some more? Please add them under comments

“The optimist sees the rose and not its thorns. The pessimist stares at the thorns, oblivious to the rose.” Khalil Gibran

If you want to read more on this subject, here are a few links to get you started:

From Helplessness to Optimism: The Role of Resilience in Treating and Preventing Depression in Youth Karen Reivich , Jane E. Gillham, Tara M. Chaplin, and Martin E. P. Seligman

Optimism Charles S.CarveraMichael F.ScheierbSuzanne C.Segerstrom

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