Research shows that maintaining realistic optimism through a crisis is essential for building hope and resilience. So in this short blog, we wanted to get you thinking about how you can hold onto optimism even while facing challenges.
What the research says about optimism
People who score highly on measures of resilience tend to be more optimistic. And countless studies have shown that people who use optimism tend to be physically healthier and happier, have better emotional wellbeing and are more able to bounce back after difficult experiences.
You might wonder whether optimistic people are just more likely to say they are healthier and happier. But prospective studies, which assess optimism before stressful events occur and then evaluate how people cope over time, show that people who use optimistic thinking styles tend to get out of hospital quicker after routine operations, are more likely to recover quickly and return to work more quickly than their less optimistic peers.
For example, a large scale study in the USA followed 95,000 women over an 8 year period. They were all healthy at the start. The research found that optimists were less likely than pessimists to develop coronary heart disease, to die from coronary heart disease or to die from any other cause.
What is optimism and can it be learned?
Back in 1990, American psychologist Martin Seligman brought out his book Learned Optimism. What followed changed the face of modern psychology, with the development of a whole new area of research into what can be learned from people who manage to remain strong and thrive through difficult times.
Drawing on more than 20 years of research, Seligman identified that optimism is a set of skills that can we can all learn and use to enhance our quality of life. By developing a more constructive explanatory style for your behaviour and negative events, and using a more positive internal dialogue, you can learn to see the world, your experiences and yourself in a more positive light.
Seligman identified three core cognitive strategies that help to make thinking more optimistic. These centre on interpreting events that we find difficult as:
Temporary: it will pass
Specific: happening now, in this particular situation but not elsewhere
External to me: not my fault or due to a feature of me as a person
How to hold onto optimism during tough times
The key to thinking optimistically is in recognising and stepping back from negative or pessimistic thinking.
When we are thinking pessimistically we tend to see difficult events as:
Permanent: things will always be this way. This involves faulty thinking in which we make negative predictions about the future. If only we could know what the future holds, we’d all be millionaires!
Pervasive: happening not only on this occasion but on other occasions both in the past and in the future. The faulty thinking here is about overgeneralising based on one event.
Personal: something to do with me, my fault. The faulty thinking involved here is personalisation and is associated with filtering out evidence that there may be other external factors involved in the negative event.
So to train ourselves to think more optimistically we need to first notice when we are becoming hooked into unhelpful patterns of pessimistic or negative thinking and step back.
Writing our thoughts down can help us do this.
Then take a look at the thoughts you have written and ask yourself if thinking in this way is helpful. Is it helping you stay resilient, bounce back and put the negative experience behind you? Or is it making you feel more stressed?
Try to put the thoughts into perspective, to see a more optimistic explanation for the negative event. See it as temporary, specific to this particular situation and external to you (not your fault). Ask yourself:
What’s the likelihood that this situation will never change?
What is the evidence that this will happen again or in other situations?
Which other factors might have contributed to this event?
Write down your answers. You may struggle to believe in them initially, but the more you repeat this exercise the easier you will find it to hold onto optimism.
Remember, we are not looking to be extreme optimists. We just want to hold on to enough realistic optimism to keep the negative thoughts at bay, to manage stress and to reconnect us with positive emotions and beliefs about ourselves.
If you found this helpful and would like to find out more about coping in a crisis, managing difficult emotions or staying positive, check out some of our other blogs in this series.