When did optimism get such a negative reputation? All of a sudden, it seems if you mention anything about being optimistic, people say you are looking through rose-colored glasses, you are impractical, and you live in a dream world. But science has come to the rescue! Research is now recognizing that there are incredible benefits—both personally and organizationally—that come from an Optimistic Spirit.
Optimists have been shown to live healthier lifestyles, have fewer harmful habits, tend to be more active, and live longer, healthier lives. According to Jeffrey Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, the one and only common trait among 40 of the world’s most successful business executives was an Optimistic Spirit (from The Mind of the CEO). These CEOs did not become successful by ignoring the facts; instead, they all had the ability to project beyond the immediate problem, and focus on the confidence that solutions were at hand. They all used self-talk to combat negative internal messages, reminding themselves of their past ability to conquer challenges.
Three Ways to Use an Optimistic Spirit to be Extraordinary
1. Reframe negative thoughts. Whenever you realize you are focusing on negative thoughts, imagine your hands are a big clapboard — like they use in movie production. Snap your hands together and shout, “Take Two!” Then spend a few moments reframing your thoughts and words surrounding the situation. And if it doesn’t work the first time, just remember that, just as in movie production, you can always “Take Three, Take Four … Take as many as you need!” The reason this technique works is because our brain’s neuroplasticity, which allows our thoughts to create new neural growth, unleashing incredible power to master any situation.
2. Play the “What If?” Game. When you find yourself stuck smack in the middle of a problem, or discover your team circling the same wagon of unresolved issues, just stop. Take a deep breath to clear your mind of all the rigidity and habitual patterns, then pose this question: What if…? Allow yourself (or your team) to go on a serendipitous journey of other ways to handle things than the way it’s always been done. Imagine there are incredible solutions right in front of you. By optimistically discussing potential options, you are open to innovative options that may have eluded you before.
According to psychologist Dr. Barbara Frederickson, who coined the term “positivity,” an optimistic spirit does not just change the way you think about things. It widens the span of possibilities that you see.
3. Practice an Attitude of Gratitude. This works on an individual basis, but is also a great practice for work teams. Look for as many ways as possible to stay focused on what you are grateful for. Search for ways to express gratitude to others in as many ways as possible. At a specific time in the day, or at intervals during a project, take time to identify things for which you are grateful. Keep a journal to capture these awarenesses.
What’s the point of the Gratitude Journal? One experimental comparison reported that participants who kept a Gratitude Journal on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, demonstrated higher degrees of alertness, enthusiasm, and determination, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). A related benefit was observed in the realm of personal goal attainment: Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions.
One of our favorite quotes about the power of an Optimistic Spirit comes from Duke Ellington:
An Optimistic Spirit is one of the chief qualities of our extraordinariness. It is not ignoring setbacks and challenges; rather, it is recognizing the setbacks and challenges as something over which you have control. Be extraordinary!