Optimism: The Fuel for Peak Performance & Resilience

What do you picture when you hear someone talk about optimism? Something like this? 

This is by far my favorite cup analogy! All joking aside, optimism, or rather the benefits of an optimistic outlook are far underrated. You may feel somewhat unsure about the notion of optimism given your military background. I’ll admit I was at first. As a former Military Intelligence Officer, we were taught to think in terms of the most likely course of action and the most dangerous course of action – and have a contingency plan. That approach seems in stark contrast with an optimistic outlook. Although there was the “plan for the worst, hope for the best” adage.

While it served us well in the military, living primarily through this lens out of uniform can have detrimental effects on our health, wellbeing, relationships, performance and resilience.

Our brains are hardwired to notice, remember and weigh negative events more heavily than positive events. Have you ever noticed that the majority of the stories on the news highlight all of the horrible things going on all around the world? There are stories that highlight the good things those in the community are doing, but they are much fewer and far between. Have you ever wondered why that is? It certainly isn’t reflective of the negative to positive events in the world. Or have you ever gone into a performance review that was mostly good but had one area to improve that you ruminated on for the rest of the day? As a result, you likely remember the review going much worse than it actually did and may not remember much of the good that was said because you zeroed on in the negative feedback.

What is going on is an automatic process called the negativity bias. Our brain is hardwired to focus on the negative. Evolutionary speaking it makes sense.  It served as a survival mechanism for our ancestors – they had to pay attention to threats in order to avoid them and thus survive. Sound familiar? While it is beneficial in certain instances, you may find it is on overdrive in your post-military life. When this happens, it can bleed, unnecessarily, into every domain of your life. So how can we counteract this? By using realistic optimism.

Optimism wedded to reality is the key here. This is not about thinking everything is rainbows or sunshine. It is not mere denial of the bad, rather it is seeing the big picture, realistically, and choosing to focus on the positive and what is within your control. It is not necessarily ‘the sky is the limit’ either. Realistic optimism draws upon the tools at hand – like your unique talents, strengths and skills. 

Optimistic thinking is not only predictive of one’s health but it is imperative for peak performance. In fact, optimistic thinkers live an average 9 years longer than pessimistic thinkers, get sick less often, recover faster, are more successful in work, perform better under pressure and have stronger relationships. The bottom line is optimistic thinking is critical for peak performance and resilience.

 There are many reasons for this such as hope, control and motivation. Those who think optimistically are more likely to identify areas within their control and take action rather than believing circumstances are hopeless. This involves learning from failure rather than dwelling on it. There is also an element of motivation as thinking drives behavior – optimistic thinkers make changes and try new strategies whereas pessimistic thinkers are more likely to throw in the towel. 

Thinking drives behavior. There are a multitude of studies on the effect of optimism on performance and resilience, here are two notable studies:

  • Performance of Olympic Athletes (Seligman, 1990). In a study of the men's US Olympic swim team, subjects swam and researchers gave them inaccurate times and asked them to swim again. They wanted to see whether or not the swimmers' thinking style effected their performance. They found that optimistic thinkers swam better than their actual time in the first round and pessimistic thinkers actually swam worse. Optimistic thinkers perform better under pressure.
  • Resilience of Heart Attack Patients (Buchanan, 1995). In a study on coronary heart disease, first time heart attack patients that were optimistic thinkers were found to be significantly less likely to die from a second heart attack than were pessimistic thinkers. Optimistic thinkers took action - they evaluated where they had control and made positive changes in their diet and exercise. Thoughts have a physiological impact. Thoughts of the permanent and unchanging nature of this condition inspires a feeling of helplessness and causes stress, which negatively impacts the immune system.

You may remember the idea of “learned helplessness” from psychology class – those experiments on dogs that showed that conditions could be created in which dogs learned that their response did not change the outcome so they simply stopped responding. They were exposed to a negative stimulus and, despite their efforts, could not avoid it. They learned that no matter what they did the outcome was inevitable so they gave up, even when given the chance to escape. Sad, right?

People experience learned helplessness too. Sometimes so much can go wrong despite our best efforts that we may give up hope. Learned helplessness is characterized by the belief that one’s situation is permanent (it will never go away), it is pervasive (it bleeds into every domain of their life) and it is personal (it is all their fault).

So now the good news: Research has shown there is an opposite effect known as “learned optimism.” It is characterized by the belief that one’s situation is temporary (“this too shall pass”), it is local (domain specific), and it is external (more accurately reflects the root cause).

But let’s look at learned optimism a little more critically. While an optimistic outlook has significant health benefits, is there a point at which too much of a good thing is bad? There are moments where a pessimistic analysis is required. Something Dr. Martin Seligman calls “flexible optimism.” For instance, events that involve serious harm, risk and/or consequences, such as in combat. Seligman defines flexible optimism as the wisdom to assess a situation to accurately identify those that require a pessimistic inquisition and those that require an optimistic attitude – as in the “courage to change the things I can” in Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer.

Do you notice yourself swaying more one way than the other? More towards the optimistic or the pessimistic thinking style? One may come more natural to you, but the good news is optimism can be developed through attention and practice.

To begin:

  1. Discover where you’re at right now in this short optimism test. Register for an account then use the drop down box titled "Questionnaires" and select "Optimism Test."
  2. Download the activity below to make powerful shifts to enhance performance and thrive through adversity. 
  3. Challenge: Practice seeing the opportunity in one event each day.
  4. JoinJoin our membership wait list today to learn more about how we can help you in your transition.

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