The Power of Positive Thinking

January 31, 2019
Author: Drew Morgan

Do you consider the glass half-full or half-empty? This old adage is commonly used in reference to one’s mentality as either optimistic or pessimistic. Research has shown time and again the benefits of optimism, which can be defined as the predisposition towards expecting favorable future outcomes.1 Optimistic individuals report fewer symptoms of depression, use more effective coping strategies, and are better equipped to deal with stress than pessimists.4 Research has demonstrated that those who are optimistic utilize more active coping styles (i.e. taking the problem head-on) versus passive coping styles which attempt to ignore the problem or reduce its importance.1 A sense of optimism provides confidence that set-backs can be worked through and perseverance is possible. If we know optimism is important, then the question becomes: Why does it help and how can I become more optimistic in my thinking?

Dr. Martin Seligman, a prominent psychologist in the area of optimism, explains an optimistic person as someone that interprets problems that arise as temporary, specific, and externally caused.5 A pessimist, on the other hand, might see the same issues as permanent, pervasive, and internally caused. As an example, say you receive negative feedback from your boss on a project. A pessimist might interpret the negative feedback by saying to themselves “this always happens (permanent), I can never do anything right (pervasive), it’s all my fault (internal)” whereas an optimist might think “this is not my best work (temporary and specific) but I had an incredibly short deadline (external).” Thus, the way adversity is internalized has a deep impact on our levels of optimism. By explaining adversity as temporary, specific, and externally caused, a set-back becomes less of a crippling indictment on one’s abilities and more of a malleable situation under one’s control.

As you can see, optimism is more than just thinking positively; it is also about thinking critically and strategically about what to give your attention. Optimists are less likely to adopt a victim mentality. Optimists will aim to respond and define their reality by exercising control over the controllable. Here are three additional strategies you can implement to develop a more optimistic mindset to help you in all areas of your life:

  1. An Attitude of Gratitude
    • Find the good in whatever it is you are doing. Stuck in a long line? Be thankful you have that moment to text a friend or family member. You have the power to choose where to put your attention. So, chose to focus on the good things – start a gratitude journal where you list something you are grateful for every day.
  2. Growth Mindset to Find the Learning Opportunities
    • Start looking at setbacks or failures as opportunities to learn instead of indictments on your abilities. Place a bigger emphasis on your efforts than on your results. Stanford researcher Carol Dweck calls this having a “growth mindset” and it is an important part of being optimistic.
  3. Act on what you can control
    • Do not waste your energy stressing about things outside of your control. During a setback list out the things you can control and start acting on them.

Conceptually, these strategies are simple, yet much more difficult in practice. Being more optimistic requires being aware of your thoughts and being purposeful about where you place your attention and energy. Additionally, people often tend to have differing levels of optimism depending on the situation. Some contexts may render these strategies effortless, whereas other situations may be so complex and stressful you may not even be aware of your levels of pessimism. The benefits of optimism are no longer debatable – they are well researched and range from better physical health, improved resilience, to increased self-esteem and life satisfaction.2

If you would like to know more about how to cultivate an optimistic mindset for you and your team, reach out to the HigherEchelon team.  

Resources

1. Carver, C. S., Scheier, F.M., Sergerstrom, S. C., (2010). Optimism. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 879-889. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2010.01.006

2. Gillham, J. E., Reivich, K. J., Jaycox, L. H., & Seligman, M. E. (1995). Prevention of depressive symptoms in schoolchildren: Two-year follow-up. Psychological science6(6), 343-351.

3. Rasmussen, H. N., Wrosch, C., Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (2006). Self‐Regulation processes and health: The importance of optimism and goal adjustment. Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1721-1748. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2006.00426.x

4. Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1992). Effects of optimism on psychological and physical well-being: Theoretical overview and empirical update. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 16, 201-228.

5. Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned optimism. New York: Knopf.