6 Keys to Balancing Optimism /Pessimism

From the keyboard end of this blog, it’s pretty easy to talk about theory and advice. Effective practice is an entirely different matter. In fact, writing helps me to better understand my challenges as often as it is sharing hard-earned wisdom.

Finding the right blend of optimism/pessimism is one case in point. I can go either way, depending on whether I have had my hot button pushed or some unresolved emotion simmering beneath the surface. When I have my emotional house in order, it tends to be pretty easy for me to stay on the positive, optimistic side.

Some folk lean toward pessimism even without that simmering emotional undercurrent.   Either way, I think it’s important to keep in mind the following concepts when trying to find balance:

  1. Have perspective – Recognize that all events are neutral. We assign meaning and value to them, which are purely subjective. In other words, there is no hard and fast rules regarding whether to take a pessimistic or optimistic view on life events. Likely you are choosing your perspective more out of habit than any real thought. Be more intentional and less emotional about your interpretation of events. If you tend to one extreme, practice viewing it from the other.
  2. Optimize strengths – Your strength might become your burden if you misuse or over use it. Those with a positivity strength may be unrealistically positive, and those with a problem-solving (restorative) strength may be overly negative. Develop your toolkit such that it allows you to take a more balanced perspective.
  3. Learn optimism – Optimism can be learned (see the book Learned Optimism for more details). There are 3 parts to optimism: pervasive, permanent and personal. Optimists tend to think good things are pervasive (universal and ubiquitous), permanent, and to a lesser degree personal (the result of one’s behavior), whereas bad things are not. Pessimists tend to believe the opposite.   Consider these factors and challenge your habitual thought patterns. For example, thinking my good luck and good health will last forever is unrealistic. In order to take good care of myself and increase the odds of good health and longevity, I must recognize the risk involved in an unhealthy lifestyle and act accordingly.
  4. Put limits around your habit – Thoughts and focus are a habit. Recognize your habit to think in a given pattern, then give yourself permission to indulge in that habit but define an end point. Then spend some time deliberately practicing the opposite behavior. If that’s difficult for you, partner with someone who can help you find more balance. Schedule that balance into your day, process or project so you are sure to follow-through each time until it becomes your new habit.
  5. Evaluate before you speak or act – You might be going off on one extreme internally, but be deliberative about how you express yourself. Reflect to find a more balanced perspective or delivery method for a given audience and situation. For example, thinking through your points before speaking or acting and finding a more neutral tone can make you more persuasive and effective. Notice people’s reactions when you act more deliberately. Do they respond in a more favorable manner? If so, keep it up. If not, try something a little different.
  6. When in doubt, err on the positive – Well-being expert Tom Rath (author of Are You Fully Charged? The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life) recommends that we spend 80% of the time being positive. This will improve your interactions, relationships and productivity.

As with all habits, they take time, effort and commitment to change. Reflecting on what you plan to do, anticipate opportunities to practice the change, and reflecting again afterwards will help make theory a reality. In addition, writing and discussing your plans and outcomes add another level of commitment to your new goals. In the end, change is about good old fashioned hard work. Pretty soon, your new behaviors will feel natural and you’ll wonder what the big deal was.

Making the Most of Optimism

Did you know that optimists are happier and more successful than pessimists?  It really does pay to cultivate your optimistic side.

I can just hear the pessimists grumbling under their breath that optimists are unrealistic and Pollyanna-ish.  It’s true.  We do tend to overdo it sometimes.   I tend to go straight to starry-eyed idealism way too quickly.  On the other hand, I contend that pessimists tend to go into the Debbie Downer too quickly, dragging down the collective energy and motivation.

What is viewed by scientists as the right balance for that optimism/pessimism spectrum is called realistic optimism.  In other words, keep your optimism within the realm of do-able to optimize your ability to move forward but in a sensible manner.

I know I need reminders of this on a daily basis as I set overly ambitious schedules and task lists for myself, and worse yet, for others.  I know that I create unnecessary stress for everyone with my over-ambitious scheduling or goals.  Here is where realistic optimism could really help improve my quality of life, relationships and even health.

Though realistic optimism has real benefits in certain situations, I counter that there is also room for unrealistic optimism, albeit at much smaller doses.  For example, do you think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Usain Bolt, J.K. Rowling, Stephen Spielberg, and YoYo Ma always settle for realistic optimism?  How do breakthrough performances and technology occur without dreaming, risk and failure?  What fun is it to play it safe at everything we do?  Is there not room, or even a need, for ambition in the areas of our passion?

Be realistically optimistic, except for one goal in one area of your life.  For you, where and what would that be?  If you can change your corner of the world just a tiny bit, how would you do it?  What would it be?  How can you make it happen, one realistic bite at a time?

Positive Organizations

“Imagine coming to work each day where inspiration, curiosity, trust, achievement and engagement are the norm.  What impact would that have on your School?  This concept does not just exist in our theoretical ideals.  The empirically-based discipline of positive psychology shows us how to thrive and create this environment in our professional and personal lives.” – SWP

Yes, it is do-able. Positive organizational scholarship is the study of how to create a positive workplace that uses positive emotion, meaning and purpose and healthy relationships to create a thriving workplace that values and nurtures its employees. For many of us, this sounds like some Disney-esque ideal: Value us? Nurture us?

Rather than write about this, I will refer you to the webinar I gave recently on behalf of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy Leadership Development Special Interest Group. I talk about positive psychology in organizations in general but end with thoughts and recommendations about implementation in higher education. Check it out here. It’s free!

Authenticity at Work and Home

There is something magical about the way young children are unapologetically them. They are not self conscious. They don’t try to cover up who they are. They say and do what they please. As they mature, kids begin to edit their behavior to conform with societal and family norms and expectations.

This modification is necessary and important if they are going to start getting along in civilized society. Running around the backyard in your underwear just isn’t cute by age 18 anymore. On the other hand, behavior regulation can also go too far when we forget who we really are beneath that civilized, socialized exterior.

That social behavior tends be context-specific. Adolescents may feel fake since they experiment with different personnas in different settings. For example, she may feel like one person at work/school or sports, and a different one at home or in social situations. She has to be obedient, compliant, smart, studious, social, cool, sweet, outgoing, aggressive, competitive, hard-working, etc. When wearing so many hats its sometimes hard to know which is the real you.

These feelings of inauthenticity may persist into adulthood since we tend to adopt even more roles than we did as a child. It may be confusing to hang out drinking beer and watching football in the garage with the neighbors by night but a high powered executive in an Armani suit by day. My version is enjoying trashy novels and television though I’m an intellectual and professional. So sue me.

Having many roles and different facets to our lives does not mean that we’re being inauthentic. We are complicated beings, we humans. We have many strengths (remember, 34 StrengthsFinders and 24 VIA strengths, at minimum) and 9 types of intelligences. We have endless number of interests and passions. At any given time or any given situation, we can draw upon any combination of our strengths, intelligences, interests and passions and still be ourselves. In fact, the more nimbly one can access one’s range of skills, the more versatile one can be.

For instance, one side of me is very analytical, responsible, persistent, and interested in justice and fairness. If you’ve pissed me off, then you’ve probably met that version of me. That Susanna is deploying analytical, responsibility, perseverance and consistency strengths. However, there is another side to me that is nurturing, compassionate, forgiving, wise, introspective and a devoted friend. That is my developer, forgiveness, ability to love and be loved, and relator strengths. I tend to bring that soft side more to children, family and friends though recently I have been enjoying using both sides at work in my training and developing activities.

If I had to use just one set of strengths all day, every day, not only would I get bored, but my repertoire and effectiveness would be very limited. Being able to draw on both types of skills means that I can do both science and personal development. The stuff in between, such as understanding the professional and personal needs of scientists and academics, is where I find the most enjoyment. My experience tells me that doing just one without the other feels incomplete.

My struggle to find my niche is not all that unique. After all, not everyone is lucky enough to have a passion for a career path or life role that’s in the societal mainstream and approved by both family and friends. The rest of us struggle to come to terms with feeling out of place, awkward, or not fulfilled by our roles. As I discussed in my last blog, that discomfort and negative emotion are your invitations to explore and learn about yourself. When that negative emotion surpasses your fear of self-discovery, you will discover yourself too.

The Magic of Negative Emotion

“Sometimes happiness is a blessing, but, generally, it is a conquest…” – Paul Coelho

We are all striving for happiness. Heck, I spent a whole year doing (what seemed like) nothing but that. But happiness is a temporary, emotional state and has become such a cliché, I’m not even sure what it means anymore.

Furthermore, positive psychology is often misunderstood to be the science of happiness. It’s actually the science of well-being, which refers to an overall life success across the many domains of our lives, not just in terms of a temporary state of positive emotion like happiness. Yes, the broad range of positive emotion is included in well-being, but it’s only a part.

Well-being also respects and values the importance of negative emotion. Just as Coelho suggests, negative emotion such as anxiety, stress, anger, and discouragement are magic moments that can fuel us to make much needed change or to chase our dreams:

“…Each day’s magic moment helps us to change and sends us off in search of our dreams.” – Coelho, cont’d

Many people seem to equate happiness with the time that they can kick back, retire and drink margaritas all day, as if their life can only begin when they hit 65.  Talk about the ultimate in delayed gratification.

The ideal retirement?

The ideal retirement?

Perhaps if our day jobs are that soul-sucking, then that philosophy makes a lot of sense. But for most of us, 65 is a long way off and we may not even make it that far.

Perhaps a more useful approach would be to channel that soul-sucking emotion into something else. What will give your work meaning and satisfaction? What dreams are you postponing or burying? What can you do today to move closer to that dream? Don’t accept that negative emotion – channel those magic moments in a way that feeds your soul and spirit.

Sitting on a beach drinking exotic cocktails may be relaxing but after a while, the soul and spirit will long for more. That “happiness” gets old and is replaced with boredom or the desire for something more satisfying. So really, we’re once again left with the paradox of needing negative emotion to fuel our search for our dreams in a way that energizes us and makes us feel alive in our authentic way. Don’t wait for Senior Day on that beach in Cancun to learn that lesson when you have so much life to be living right now.

But what is that life given our soul-sucking jobs?  Joseph Campbell advises us that it’s not happiness or meaning we’re searching for, but rather the joy of feeling alive:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

What makes you feel most energized and alive? Let that be your guide to finding your authentic “happiness”.