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?

What You Doin’?

How much of your day is spent mindlessly doing what we always do?  Granted, much of our day has to be just that; having to consciously do every task as if we have never done it before would take all of our effort and attention.  But perhaps a few of the things we believe to be necessary tasks, are really not necessary at all.  Perhaps they’re even harmful or counterproductive. I challenge each of you to re-examine your day as you go about it.  Just one day.  Pay close attention to what you do and why you’re doing it.  Are you acting out of habit, necessity, desire, or because of someone else’s (or your own) expectations?  What are those expectations? I would suspect a significant part of our day is spent without deliberate intention.  We may find that once we carefully examine our motivation for each task, that most of our tasks are consistent with our authentic goals and desires. But likely, some fraction will not.  Some of our tasks are done out of habit of what we tend to notice or believe.  For example, if I only notice what makes me tired, then I will feel tired and find ways to rest.  If I notice things that give me energy, I will feel energized and continue to pursue those tasks.  If I notice things that make me feel sad, I’ll feel depressed and need to find ways to soothe myself.  These beliefs and habits tend focus our intentions, and thus our actions.   That is fine, as long as the task and beliefs are consistent with our authentic goals and desires. What would happen if you gave up those observations, tasks, beliefs, and assumptions that divert you from your life’s plan?  Or just modified them?  What if you then took that increasingly precious time and energy and did something that would feed or nourish your spirit? I think it’s easy as a parent or spouse to get into habits of doing things for other people, even if it’s not good for them or they’ve outgrown it.  I recall a conversation a long time ago when we discussed asking our six year old to start getting his own breakfast.  At first it felt like we had suggested we amputate a good leg.  But guess what?  He did a great job (except for the one time when he tried to put a chicken thigh in the toaster). If you can identify one thing that you have been doing out of habit that you now realize you should change, consider adding this new perspective to your daily outlook.  Remember, what we notice is habit, how we tend to think about what we notice is usually habit, and what we do as a response is often habit.  We can change our habits if they are not serving us well. Go on.  Change something.  Create new habits, perspectives and beliefs that nourish your spirit.    

Directing that Competitive Streak



by Jackson, college student

Competition in modern America is ubiquitous. It permeates our daily lives, our economy, our popular culture, and our education system. But to really understand competition’s effects, I must delineate between two sides of the competitive coin, one negative, and one positive.

Negative competition results when it is targeted externally at a person or group. I’ve noticed this throughout my life in volleyball, academics, and fraternity life. Much of my athletic career was focused on maybe getting more blocks than the other team or really just outperforming the other team. In high school we had class rankings based on GPA. Of course it was silly to try to jump say, #50 to #2 but the marginal advancement suddenly became important. I recall people targeting the students who were one or two ranks ahead of them and trying then to achieve a high enough GPA to advance to those spots. Now, in my fraternity, we tend to set goals to beat another fraternity in intramurals, campus notoriety or, once again, GPA.

While this type of targeted competition creates a push to achieve and beat the opponent, it is inherently limited. It is limited because it is an entirely relative measurement of achievement. For instance, if I desire to move up one spot in my class ranking, it doesn’t mean that I am trying to move from #2 to #1. For all intents and purposes, I could be trying to achieve a 1.1 GPA in order to move from #430 to #429. When my only goal is to beat the rival volleyball team, that team could play their absolute worst and I would only need to play marginally better (which would still be terrible) to win. Targeted competition ties your performance to that of the competition, who may be underperforming.

The other side of the coin is self- directed competition. This side is far more positive and productive because your own performance is no longer tied to the performance of another. Self- directed competition means setting your own goals that are independent of anything that anyone else is doing. The concept sounds simple but the actual implementation is tricky.

Imagine yourself in a vacuum, devoid of anyone else but you’re still engaged in a given activity. Nobody else is in your class, only one fraternity on the Greek scene, and so on. Then, there can be no comparisons. What then? You must compete against your own goals, unlimited by the performance of others. Strive to achieve a constantly improving GPA instead of just to beat another person. Push for zero errors and excellent play in sports. These are examples of self-directed competition.

When you set and compete to achieve your own goals, you can achieve far more than if you were attached to the another’s performance. It also is a much healthier and more positive mindset and likely less damaging  for your relationship with the person you’re trying to best.  Where are you setting your goals too low by comparing yourself to someone else?