“Twixt the optimist and the pessimist
The difference is droll,
The optimist sees the donut
But the pessimist sees the hole”
McLandburgh Wilson, 1915
Anyone who has ever tried to make healthy changes in the way that they eat, drink, exercise or smoke knows that you are not successful 100% of the time. We have many expressions for the all too common experience of failing to maintain our resolve in these matters: backsliding, falling off the wagon, slips, relapse, regression, setbacks etc.
While we all may experience setbacks, we don’t all give ourselves the same explanation for why we have them. And, according to an abundance of psychological research, our explanation is actually a key predictor for how we will respond to setbacks.
Some people, when faced with a setback, tell themselves that the setback means they are not going to be able to achieve their goal, i.e. the failure is permanent. They may even go further and start thinking that this particular failure is a reflection of a tendency they have to be unsuccessful in other areas of life; i.e. their failure is pervasive. Worst of all, a person with this explanatory style often starts blaming themselves and thinking “I can’t do anything right”; i.e. the failure is very personal.
A person with this pessimistic explanatory style is more likely to give up, in the face of difficulty. They tend to:
- Blame themself when things go wrong.
- See setbacks as evidence of worthlessness.
- Lose motivation in the face of obstacles.
- Procrastinate in the face of increased stress.
- Feel overwhelmed and helpless.
Contrast this with a person who has an optimistic explanatory style, and is more likely to persist in the face of difficulty. They tend to:
- Sees failure as a normal part of life.
- Focus on their strengths.
- Maintain motivation to overcome obstacles.
- Use stress to push toward goals.
- Work harder to find a solution.
Not surprisingly, given these differences, many studies have found that optimism is strongly correlated with better physical well-being and health compared to pessimism.
The good news here is that there is also a lot of research demonstrating that people can learn to improve their optimism.
One of the world’s leading authorities on helping people learn to improve their optimism, Dr. Martin Seligman, has developed a simple self-scoring test to measure optimism/pessimism. If you would like to take this short test, to see where you stand on the optimism scale click here.
Tips for becoming more optimistic
- Tune into your thoughts and feelings. Notice pessimistic thinking that may be sapping your motivation.
- Ask yourself: “What am I telling myself about this setback that is making me feel more overwhelmed by it?”
- Give yourself credit for having started to make changes, despite the inevitable setbacks.
- Remind yourself that: “I am stressed, not helpless. It’s OK that I had a setback. I will figure it out.”
- Take advantage of the availability of confidential professional consultation from your EAP. They can help you find ways to maintain motivation, overcome procrastination and improve your optimism.
Remember that there is abundant scientific research proving that you can learn to increase your optimism and achieve better health and well-being.