Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

The Art of Optimism

As far as personality types go, I will happily admit to leaning towards the obsessive compulsive end of the spectrum; which, as a not so handy by-product makes me a naturally gifted pessimist too.

Thanks to that innate pessimistic proficiency I can state with some authority the simple two part formula that offers a sure fire means of always perceiving the glass as half empty: -

Pessimism Formula (First Part):

Bad Event = Permanent + Universal + Personal

Take any random negative event, consider its consequences to be permanent and then project its destructive impact so that it pervades all areas of your life. If you’re a real master of pessimism as I once was, you can also personalise each and every setback you encounter, so that it becomes a reflection of you, not of an external source.

I’ll never get my life on track

These problems will always hold me back

Things never work out well

I’m crap at chess, I must be totally stupid

I have no fight left in me

They didn’t invite me out with them; I must be really bad company

Pessimism Formula (Second Part):

Good event = Temporary + Specific + External

Take a good event on the other hand and trivialize its significance. Rationalise away success as having been dependant on circumstances temporary and specific to the event. Never, ever, let your mind run sufficiently wild to believe that you could easily emulate any specific success again, or to believe that achievement in one area could possibly contribute to success in another; and always maintain that your achievement was more down to luck than it was to you.

I did well because I just happened to be on good form

She thought I was witty and charming; doesn’t mean anyone else will

I did well because the competition were half-wits

Et voilà!

Live your life by that simple two part formula and you, like I did, can enjoy a life of unbridled despondency, frustration, anxiety and depression; laced delicately around the edges with a garnish of despair and foreboding for the future.

It’s just like baking puff-pastry really…stick to the formula and your pessimism vol-au-vents will rise flawlessly every time. Et voilà!

The Consequences…

You won’t be surprised to learn then, that psychologists reckon that pessimists find life just a tad on the trying side.

In comparison to their more optimistic counterparts, pessimists may have a slightly more accurate view of reality (I may have been the exception) but it comes at a high price. They often only see the futility of a bad situation and consequently, they’re easily beaten into submission by life’s misfortunes.

Those chirpy, possibly annoying optimists on the other hand, just press ahead regardless. They never let go of the often delusional, but always proactive belief that they can influence their circumstances for the better; which consequently, they often do.

As Leonardo DiCaprio (as conman Frank Abagnale in the film Catch Me If You Can) put it so succinctly when coerced into saying Grace:

Two little mice fell into a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned; but the second mouse, he struggled so hard that he eventually churned that cream into butter and he walked out. Amen.

Which would you rather be?

No one, with the possible exception of masochists and martyrs, wants to be dragged down by life; and so I’m guessing that given the choice you’d rather be the mouse that turns the cream into butter rather than the one that drowns.

If so, Amen indeed.

And that’s great news too, because by sheer good fortune I can also give you the magic two part formula for optimism; which just coincidentally happens to be the same as the pessimism formula… just flipped on its head.

The Optimism Formula

Take a classic bad event: – a relationship breakdown; something that whichever way you try to cut it is unlikely to ever leave you gleefully rubbing your hands together in abundant joy.

The pessimist of course, would see the breakup as having permanent repercussions; the negative effects of which would reverberate through all areas of his life. What’s more, the blame would squarely lie with him.

I’m doomed to a life of solitude. I’ll never find anyone else. I’m totally unlovable. I’ll be so miserable in my lonely world that I’ll never find happiness in anything again. Everything is going to fall apart now, I can’t cope anymore.

And that’s what he’d let happen: – his entire life would fall apart, providing the perfect example of the pessimism formula unleashing its tornado-like destructive worst.

The optimist on the other hand, would mitigate all those negatives by flipping that thinking on its head. He would make the event temporary, limited in scope and impersonal.

Optimism Formula (First Part):

Bad Event = Temporary + Specific + Non Personalised

Well, it ain’t great but I’ll get by. It’s not the first relationship I’ve had that’s broken down, probably won’t be the last. Going on past experience though, what I can say with a pretty high degree of certainty is that I won’t be alone indefinitely.

Neither does this single event have any bearing on the rest of my life. I still have friends; I still have my passions and my interests; I still have my health; I still have dreams and ambitions that remain intact. None of those are dependent on whether I’m with someone or not.

And why did the relationship break down? Well, as they say in the divorce courts, irreconcilable differences I guess.

It’s a totally different mindset isn’t it? It’s a mindset that lifts you out of a swamp of despair and futility, absolves you of corrosive self-condemnation and likewise, prevents the rot of a failure in one area of life from needlessly infiltrating the rest.

But ultimately of course, it’s the end result, not the mindset that matters most. Does all your chirpy, optimistic thinking pay dividends in the real world?

To answer that just ask yourself this question: – Out of the two, who’s the more like to find another fulfilling relationship; the bloke who lets his life fall apart at the seams or the one who remains in control, functional and positive?

Optimism, as you should rhetorically see, need not be blind…just proactive.

Optimism Formula (Second Part):

Good Event = Permanent + Universal + Personal

I can tell you with absolute certainty that any job I’m interviewed for I will get. It is the one aspect of my life where I can categorically state I’m a natural optimist – I interview extremely well. The same cannot be said for holding on to jobs (historically speaking that is), but that is another matter.

How did that optimistic belief affect my attitude towards interviews?

Well obviously, my self-image as God’s gift to anyone looking to recruit meant that I’d go fully prepared, looking the part and brimming with confidence. In fact, I felt so comfortable and in control in an interview situation, that not only did I never get put on the ropes, but I’d routinely end up interviewing the interviewer (in a covert, friendly way).

For me, interviews were better than sex and I would always get the job.

And that provides a perfect illustration of how optimists work. They don’t explain away a specific success through temporary of specific rationale. They don’t attribute getting the job to just a good performance on the day, or a kindly and likeable interviewer. Instead they take that specific success as irrefutable evidence of an innate ability or talent that is theirs to keep and that’ll permanently shine through.

Neither would an optimist consider himself to be a good interviewee just in specific circumstances. Whether it was an interview for a job, bank loan or political candidacy; whether the interview was ‘one-to-one’ or held by a dozen stony faced inquisitors sitting in a semicircle, would all make sod all difference: – that basic strength would be seen as universal; applying to a pretty diverse range of loosely related circumstances.

And of course, with that outlook, you’ll be stirred to do everything in your power to afford a positive outcome, and you’ll have the confidence and calm of mind to pull it off.

Confession…

Now I will let you into a secret…Once I actually failed to get a job as an (real) estate agent. Why? Because the interviewer was a prat, plain and simple.

He took an immediate dislike to me; quick-fired a succession of aggressive, undermining questions; refused to engage with me on a one-to-one level; insisted on pushing me onto the ropes with statements such as, “Please just answer the question I asked you” and was terminally rude, obnoxious and thoroughly arrogant.

He was an overweight, late middle-aged, middle-management prat. (I really, really loathe the heady mix of quasi superiority and self-perceived success that such people bath in, in an attempt to mask the stench of their own idiocy.)

Now I’m not just letting off steam here. Although this example is meant to be illustrate how optimists interpret a good event to their advantage by making its effects permanent, universal and personal, that one failure also aptly illustrates how an optimist deals with any irksome bad event that doesn’t fit the pattern.

That specific interview and the interviewer were the problem, not me. In my mind, I rationalised the interview away as a one-off bad experience; one which had no bearing on either me or my future successes. It certainly didn’t knock my confidence in later interviews or in any other aspect of my life. Far from it; I found it amusing that I’d just met the greatest pillock who’d ever walked God’s green earth.

The bad event was rationalised away as being temporary, specific and non-personal.

Pre-emptive Strike…

So my clear argument here is to moderate your thinking; to be on guard for any hint of the two-part pessimism formula at work, and to then usurp it with the two-part optimism formula.

Pollyanna…

But that of course leaves me naked to those who would accuse me of suggesting that you should hide from your troubles; that you should never face reality head on. “Yeah that’s right” I hear the naysayers scorn, “pretend it’s not happening by way of Pollyanna tinted glasses and all your problems will miraculously drift away.”

But as I asserted in my last post ‘Keep the Faith’, this isn’t about head burying or living in blissful ignorance. It’s about maintaining a belief that you can always influence your circumstances for the better. That’s a mindset that will always keep you searching for solutions as opposed to resigning yourself to ‘insurmountable’ problems.

As the 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche so eloquently put it, “He who has a why can endure any how”. Or how I less eloquently put it in a comment I left on my friend Tammy’s post ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, “So how can I improve upon this situation? …because the solution is always there…somewhere.”

Instinctive Pessimism…

The other important point to make here is that the beliefs you hold about yourself, a specific event or circumstance are just that – they are beliefs. Those beliefs may or may not reflect reality, but they should never be confused with reality.

Given any event you encounter, a troubling pessimistic thought is just as likely to be off target as an optimistic alternative.

But we often go with the pessimistic alternative simply because it so easily springs to mind. And that’s because we’re hardwired to see the worst in any potentially negative scenario – it’s a quirk of mind that has kept us in the gene pool.

Ask yourself this question: Who was most likely to survive? A nomadic hunter traipsing around a prehistoric savannah who said to himself, “All sabre toothed tigers are lethal, given the opportunity they will always try to sink those exaggerated canines into my soft, juicy jugular” or the one who thought, “Well just because some of them are like that sometimes doesn’t mean this one’s a bad egg too…Maybe this one’s just a big, cuddly, misunderstood pussycat”?

It was the optimist who dragged himself a few feet homeward without his jugular every time.

So in the face of adversity, our minds are instinctively vulnerable to pessimistic thinking; and because those thoughts are a product of our evolutionary ‘survival toolkit’ they will always feel very ‘real’.

But they’re not. They’re skewed distortions of reality…which you have the option to override.

Yes, the optimism formula you consciously employ to override those pessimistic thoughts may be equally skewed, but with the exception of life or death situations, who cares?

If a more optimistic slant gives you the calm, the composure, the clear thinking, as well as the enthusiasm and persistence to push proactively ahead, that has to be a virtue in anyone’s eyes.

And in the light of day it’s a virtue that leads the optimist to out manoeuvre and outperform his pessimistic contemporaries just about every time.

So Remember…

Whenever you feel despondency or despair, scan your thoughts for any underlying pessimistic thoughts.

In the case of a bad event ask yourself:

Am I attributing any permanent, universal or personalised cause to this bad event?

If so, simply apply ‘part one’ of the optimism formula by replacing the pessimistic belief with an equally plausible but temporary, limited or non-personalised interpretation:

Making the bad event temporary…

“I will never get in shape” (permanent pessimism)…becomes “This diet / exercise regime doesn’t work for me. What are the alternatives? How can I improve upon this situation?”

In the above example you’re applying the optimism formula by reframing the problem so that it no longer has a permanent root cause, but is the result of a temporary block to success.

Making the bad event specific…

“I failed at this, I’m incompetent at everything” (universal pessimism)…becomes “I’m not good at this, but there are plenty of other things I can think of that I am good at.”

Here you’re limiting the scope of the damage by seeking out contradictory evidence.

Making the bad event non-personal…

“I failed that interview because he clearly thought I was incompetent and useless…Maybe I am?” (personalised pessimism)…becomes “I failed that interview because the interviewer was a prat”.

Here you’re depersonalising the failure – you’re overriding the ruthless self-criticism that we all like to inflict upon ourselves and which never does anything but lead to plummeting self-esteem.

NB I should point out that I’m not advocating a ‘blame other people at all costs’ strategy here. Burying one’s head in the sand when it comes to personal weaknesses and culpability is childishly ridiculous and equally self-destructive. There is a strong distinction I believe between reflecting objectively on your own short-comings in a given event (which we should always do) and unleashing the type of unbridled self-criticism that we are all prone too by nature. Searching for non-personalised contributory factors helps you to escape the latter.

In the case of a good event: -

Make the cause permanent, universal and personalised.

“I did well on the project because I worked hard” (temporary) becomes “I did well because I always work hard” (permanent)

“I’m good at chess” (limited)…becomes “I’m smart” (universal)

“They laughed at my jokes” (depersonalised)…becomes “I’m witty” (personalised).

Gathering the Evidence…

I started this post by spelling out the formula for pessimism; so for the sake of consistency and to end on a more optimistic note I’ll end by spelling out the ‘Optimism formula’ once again:

Bad Event = Temporary + Specific + Depersonalised

Good Event = Permanent + Universal + Personalised

The great thing is you don’t need to really remember it. You simply need to spot the pessimism formula in action and flip that thinking on its head. The optimism formula is after all, just the reverse.

What you do need to do however, in order to make the ‘Optimism Formula’ effectively work is to search for contradictory evidence that undermines a pessimistic thought, and corroboratory evidence that effectively bolsters a helpful one.

Likewise, thinking of plausible, but more consoling alternative explanations for potentially negative events is an extremely effective means of undermining a pessimistic train of thought.

The simple act of examining a pessimistic thought can often reveal it for the charlatan it is. Pessimistic thoughts, as I said before, often gain their validity and strength from our instinctive bias towards them; applying the required reason and logic to view events through a more optimistic lens requires conscious input.

Some of my favourite questions for evoking that more reasoned, optimistic mindset include:

What’s the evidence? (that refutes a pessimistic thought or supports a more optimistic explanation)

What plausible alternative, more optimistic explanations could there be?

How can I improve upon this situation? What do I need to change? How do I turn the cream into butter?

To lessen the anxiety inducing impact of a potentially pessimistic outcome:

What’s the worst that could happen?

The above sounds trite, but really works. An objective assessment of a future worst case scenario almost always reveals itself to be significantly less harrowing than the imagined, instinctive fear.

How could it have turned out worse?

Again, it sounds trite, but sincerely reflecting upon an avoided worst case scenario boosts your sense of good fortune and therefore, your optimism. It’s the reason one person involved in a plane crash can feel truly elated to be alive, whilst another with a pessimistic outlook can be haunted by thoughts of, ‘Why did it have to happen to me?

What’s the worst that could happen? What would I do in that event to improve the situation? How would I cope?

I thought I’d save the best until last, both in optimistic impact and as a counter-offensive to any allegation that optimism is by definition ‘blind’.

The above questions force you to examine the worst case scenario and to come up with a ‘Plan B’ – one that effectively mitigates those potential nightmarish circumstances.

There’s nothing more grounded in reality than taking that proactive step into a potential nightmare; and it’s a strategy that can ally so many of those crippling pessimistic fears. For example, I used to be consumed with the fear of ‘losing everything’; but by logically reflecting on the actions I’d take if everything did go belly up, that scenario has now lost much of its sting.

Firstly, it helped me to develop a range of countermeasures to ensure I don’t ‘lose everything’ in the first place, and even if I did, it has given my the assurance of knowing what I would do and how I’d survive. In fact, one of the options I have in place as a ‘Plan B’ involving a campervan, my iPad and the freedom offered by the vastness of the EU I actually find quite alluring. :-)

However you do it and whatever questions you ask, the trick is of course, to always make the cause of any bad (or potentially bad) event temporary, limited in scope and non-personal; and the cause of any good event to be permanent, universal and personal.

That is the simple art of optimism; that’s how to always keep your spirits up, to stay resilient in the face of adversity and to keep your mind focused on the solution that’ll churn the cream into cheese.


Nods, winks and interesting stuff…

I have unfortunately just fried my brain finishing this article; and have to get something to eat before I lapse into a coma. I’ll be putting a post with lots of resources I found interesting and helpful in the last week up on Sunday though (Monday at the latest)…including of course anyone who’s kind enough to mention this post on their website ;-)

If you found this post helpful and you think others will too, please consider sharing the link on Facebook, Twitter or whatever other site you use. Thank you, Gareth

Comments

  1. Stench of their own idiocy and pillock were enough to make this worth reading, but there is much more to your post than that!! The answer is indeed always there, even in a Bartok string quartet or Bach fugue. As hidden as it may be, it is there. The optimist continues the search and if necessary invents a solution even if it does not really exist. This is the war cry of the creative, at least for me. Who can stare down the five-note octatonic motif an convince themselves that they can invent its endless permutations? Foolishly, I do.

    Your posts are sooooo worth reading, Gareth. I look forward to them as much as any pint of quality pale ale or IPA.

    Yours, in unreasonably churning the hops into IPA!

    • Better than beer! What greater compliment can there be? Thank you for that CJ.

      You see, this is where you leave me in the theory dust. Superimposed diminished 7th’s making a useable scale??? Now you can see why I was having difficulty figuring out what you were doing in your compositions.

      I pride myself on being able to do a moderately impressive Malmsteen-esque diminished run down the length of the neck. But achieving more than mindless flash with it? That’s where my optimism runs dry :-)

      Keep on churning the cream CJ – the world needs eternal optimists like you! Like you said, that’s the well-spring of creativity.
      Gareth Mitchell recently posted…The Art of OptimismMy Profile

      • Your list of questions for the optimistic mindset may go on the mirror as well, Gareth. They are thoughtful, logical and practical.

        And I am not leaving anyone in the dust in any respect, although I appreciate your kind words. I am just a music nerd who tends to relate everything I can to music because that is where my knowledge, if any at all, resides.

        My optimism does occasionally get me in trouble by getting in over my head and too quickly, but I try to douse the trouble with a bit more optimism.
        cj recently posted…Dart Lessons With Louie The LipMy Profile

  2. Amazing post, Gareth. Beautiful layout and clear thoughts. Thanks for this.

  3. Although it is at the bottom of the list as to why I love this article, I am adding ‘prat’ to my vocabulary immediately! I could not find the definition of ‘pillock’ – so I must ask you if it is synonymous with prat? Either way, I hope they can both be used in public as I intend to start immediately.

    I have been on a mini-break from blogging and commenting while my mom visited, and I am delighted to find this post worth every minute of reading. You never disappoint.

    Gareth, as you know, I have followed a similar path when it comes to climbing from the depths of my mind. I now question almost every thought, but I think it’s extremely helpful not to have to remember a formula and appreciate your reminders to just flip the pessimism on its head. I was thinking as I read, Well of course I can do that!

    I am a mystery to myself – though becoming less so each day – because I am not sure exactly where I fall on the optimism/pessimism scale. Although I know my personality is rather ‘set’, I am well aware of my ability to make change happen. I do struggle with putting my thoughts out there, but the past six months have been a delightful surprise. The more I do it, the less I struggle with it. I am rather good at cheering others on but have neglected myself in the past. Now, I can happily report, I do much more of what I want and less of what I think others want. I think your post will continue to help me in this area.

    Reading your posts adds to what I’ve learned, and I am so thankful and appreciative of the work you put into each and every post.

    • Great to have you back Tammy; I don’t blame you for taking time out. In fact, I find onscreen reading a real strain personally, so I take my fair share of offline sabbaticals too.

      As long as no one knows what you’re calling them I’m sure you’ll get away with it Tammy – wouldn’t recommend trying it in the UK though :-) They are pretty much interchangeable terms – ‘pillock’ is probably the more offensive of the two though. Having said that, anyone calling their boss a ‘prat’ would probably find themselves quickly joining the ranks of the unemployed too.

      Discerning where one fits in on the Pessimism / Optimism scale can be tricky because of the interrelation of the factors of permanence, pervasiveness and personalisation. I know myself that there are areas of my life in which I’m innately susceptible to feeling quite downtrodden (which necessitates conscious effort to fight) and other areas where I’m mind numbingly and perpetually optimistic; thanks specifically to that intricate web of factors. So I can relate entirely to your ‘Am I an optimist or a pessimist?’ uncertainty.

      Although I impressed myself with my formulaic presentation :-), the article owes a great deal to the positive psychologist Martin Seligman, who outlines the interplay of permanence, pervasiveness and personalisation in his books ‘Learned Optimism’ and ‘Authentic Happiness.’ In fact, if you want a greater insight into your own ‘explanatory style’ of pessimistic / optimistic thinking, you can take his Optimism Test online.

      You’re absolutely right Tammy; formulas aren’t much use when you’re gripped by despair. Like you, I need something a little more straightforward – flipping my thinking on its head is something I can likewise just about do.
      Gareth Mitchell recently posted…Nods, Winks and Interesting Stuff – 19th MarchMy Profile

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