If you really want to be successful – at anything – start with building your optimism. That’s the implication drawn from reading the research of Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman has studied optimism for years, using different experiments and different types of people. The results of his research are stunningly consistent: people with an optimistic attitude succeed significantly better at everything from academics to sports to business.
Seligman’s research observes that there is a difference in how people explain to themselves their successes and failures. Optimists see a failure as due to something that can be changed so that they can succeed the next time around. “I wasn’t putting in my best effort.” “I didn’t get that job because I hadn’t prepared for the type of questions they asked.” Optimists tend to respond to failure in proactive ways, like planning or obtaining input or practicing.
Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to attribute failure to forces beyond their control and unchangeable. They may blame internal deficits, and when they do, they see them as core failures, not something that can be improved. “I’ve never been good at dealing with people. I’m hopeless at it.” Or they attribute the failure to some external force that cannot be influenced. “I can never get ahead here. They only promote attorneys.” Believing that they can do nothing to improve the situation, they indeed do nothing.
Optimism is not just associated with success. Research has also shown a strong link between an optimistic viewpoint and well-being. A study released by Concordia University’s Department of Psychology (July 23, 2013) found that the stress hormone cortisol is more stable in optimists than in pessimists, producing a better biological response to stress. Other studies associate optimism with fulfillment and satisfaction.
It certainly seems that optimism is pretty close to a silver bullet and ought to be cultivated. But if you’re a pessimist you’re telling yourself right now that you are a born pessimist and that will never change. And you probably have an aversion to those naïve Pollyannas anyway.
You do have a point. The research shows that realistic optimists fare better than blind optimists. But the research also shows that pessimists who do not give up, who acknowledge the possibility of failure but are not discouraged from making efforts to prevent that failure, can succeed as well as those who have an optimistic viewpoint. So you don’t have to become Pollyanna, you only have to change the way you react to adversity.
Psychologist David Fresco at Kent State University conducted promising studies that point the way toward how to change pessimistic self-talk to more optimistic self-talk. In one, subjects were asked to offer alternative explanations for why an adversity or failure occurred. “What might be another explanation?” Initially, the alternative explanations were equally or even more pessimistic. But with repetition of this approach over time, the alternate explanations became more positive and hopeful, accompanied by ideas and plans.
In another study, athletes were trained to attribute positive results to their ability, and negative results to lack of effort. In every such study, this training improved future success.
So the hopeful news from these studies is that pessimistic reactions to adversity can be modified to become more optimistic. And why would you not want to give it a try? It’s almost a silver bullet.