After I got my first (and at this point, my only) tattoo, I regretted it…after the adrenaline wore off, of course. I have grown used to having it, and many years later, I don’t really think about it much.
After I got my first car, doubt started setting in about whether it was financially sensible. I drove it until the repairs were becoming costly. I never missed a payment.
After I got my second car, I again began to doubt whether it was a smart expense. After driving it for two years with some scratches on the side, I’m kind of glad I have it.
After my purchase offer on a condo went through, I immediately became plagued with extreme doubt and extreme anxiety. This wasn’t a car or a tattoo. It was a major investment, and the fear of having to make payments every month was hard to shake off. It was only until my eternally pessimistic mother said, “You’ll be fine. You have to think positive,” that I began to calm down – and started to take a serious look at my thinking style.
This has always been my pattern. I do something that I think is a good idea, then immediately start to doubt myself. And try as I might, I can’t switch from doubt and fear to joy and confidence very easily. Then I asked myself: Can anyone be 100% optimistic? Do you need to be a total optimist in order to be happy? So I turned to the only thing that has the power to convince me: cold, hard data.
Using data collected from our optimism test, I compared people in my sample in 6 different areas. Here’s what I discovered:
(Note: scores range from 0 to 100. Scoring on the higher end reflects an optimistic outlook, while scoring on the lower end reflects a pessimistic outlook).
Satisfaction with friendships
- Those who are extremely satisfied with their friendships scored 66 on the pessimism/optimism continuum.
- Those who are extremely dissatisfied scored 40.
Satisfaction with family relationships:
- Those who are extremely satisfied with their family relationships scored 64 on the pessimism/optimism continuum.
- Those who are extremely dissatisfied scored 43.
When faced with a crisis
- Those who are extremely confident that things will turn out fine scored 68 on the pessimism/optimism continuum.
- Those who are not at all confident scored 36.
Ability to deal with stress
- Those who are very good at dealing with stress scored 66 on the pessimism/optimism continuum.
- Those who deal with stress very poorly scored 39.
Difficulty trusting others
- Those who have difficulty trusting others scored 49 on the pessimism/optimism continuum.
- Those who do not have difficulty trusting others scored 67.
- Those who rated their health as excellent scored 63 on the pessimism/optimism continuum.
- Those who rated their health as very poor scored 42.
My first few thoughts when I saw the moderately-high scores for the optimists were, “What the hell? Why aren’t they closer to 100? How can they be so content and happy, yet have modest scores on optimism?” I took my question to the father…of positive psychology: Dr. Martin Seligman. It is in his theories that I found two key words: flexible optimism.
Seligman describes himself as a “flexible optimist.” Here’s how he describes this state of being:
What I’ve become is what I call a “flexible optimist.” I can recognize the situations which call for optimism, and the situations which don’t call for optimism need a mercilessly realistic view of what’s going to happen. When I make that separation, if it’s one of the many situations in which the optimism skills are going to pay off, then I throw in my whole complement of optimism skills. It makes me better able to initiate different projects. But when I’m in a situation in which the cost of failure is very high, then what I want is merciless realism. In that case I revert to my usual “four in the morning” pessimism.
When the cost is small, use the optimism skills. On the other hand, the cost of failure can be very large, such as getting into an affair which will lead to divorce if your spouse finds out, or, as a pilot, having another drink at a party before a flight. You really don’t want optimistic pilots. When the cost of failure is large and catastrophic, you don’t want to use optimism skills. That’s the basic rule of thumb.
Basically, flexible optimism is facing situations with a positive yet realistic outlook. You don’t ignore the potential consequences or risks, but you also don’t dwell on them. You expect the best outcome, but prepare yourself just in case things don’t turn out as well as you expected them to. This explains why my satisfied, content, healthy, resilient, and happy group didn’t score over 70 on optimism. It’s not that they expect the world to always be sunshine and lollipops; they just enjoy those great moments when they happen, and prepare themselves (mentally and practically) for those days when it’s cloudy and (give me a disgusting candy example…milk duds? Those icky ones you always find in your grandma’s purse? Well, you get the idea).
Here are some tips on becoming a flexible optimist:
- View setbacks as short-lived. Whenever you are feeling overwhelmed and find yourself plunging into negativity, remind yourself that things can get better. If you’re having a hard time in a class you’re taking, for example, or you’re having relationship problems, look at it as temporary. Whatever the situation, you can take proactive steps to deal with the underlying issues. Even if you are faced with something that you will have to deal with for a lifetime (like a health problem or family issue), there is always some way to improve the situation. You will grow stronger, heal, or find better ways to cope.
- Refuse to be a victim. Seligman states that the feeling of being a victim leads to learned helplessness. If you blame your problems on other people or circumstances, you will avoid taking personal responsibility for your life. While it may be true that there are things beyond your control, the majority of what happens in your life is up to YOU. Life may throw you many curveballs, but it is you who decides how you’ll react to them.
- Practice TSE. Pessimists see problems as permanent, pervasive and personal. Optimists, on the other hand, view unpleasant events as temporary, specific, and external (TSE). Imagine, for example, a friend is upset with you for a comment you made. Instead of thinking “I’ve lost that friendship forever” (permanent), tell yourself that you will talk to her and clear it up, and in time she will probably see that you are sincere in your apology (temporary). Replace your reaction that you “always screw up good friendships” (pervasive) with “I shouldn’t have made that comment, but I am a good friend” (specific). Lastly, avoid dwelling on a thought like “I am an awful person” (personal). Instead, tell yourself “I’ve hurt my friend’s feelings and should address that” (external).