Full or Empty?

On our recent family holiday away, I was somewhat concerned we might run out of things to talk about with each other. I’m not sure where this worry came from. We haven’t had too much difficulty over the past 35 years. Anyway, along our travels I found us a set of personality assessments, to help fill in the quiet times. And really help us to get to know each other.

Trudy relished in adopting the role - undertaking an incredibly empathic and curious psychologist persona - and the test she randomly selected for me was ‘How optimistic are you?’ This also excited her. I remember her saying something along the lines of “Yes! Here we will find out that Sam is actually not the happy, love and rainbows type person after all. And instead just a cold-hearted cynic.” Well, that’s what I heard anyway.

 ‘Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement…no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit’. Helen Keller (1880 – 1968)

Helen Keller’s words reflect the popular upbeat concept of the word which has been gaining ground since the 1960s as an increasing body of research has demonstrated a consistent tendency of healthy successful people to think in generally positive ways.

When I was younger I was definitely a glass half full kind of girl. I nearly embodied all the different types of optimism around today. I genuinely expected that more good things than bad things would happen in the future (dispositional optimism). I was likely to attribute good events with permanence (likely to recur), pervasiveness (the ‘goodness’ will extend to other future events. Whereas bad events were impermanent and non-pervasive (attributional optimism). And a lot of my optimism was incongruent. It didn’t make sense that I presumed good things would happen over adversity, despite the probability of how life experiences happen (unrealistic optimism).

Our perspective on things influences pretty much happens. What happens to us in life is only part of the story; perspective accounts for what we see and the meaning we make of it.

And the more of life and the psychological atmosphere of our culture that I soak up, through news, journalism, social media and conversations with colleagues, clients, friends and family, the more my perception changes. It’s very difficult not to notice the images and stories of violence, abuse, dishonesty, manipulation and greed. Along the way, we are taught to protect ourselves we need to be on the lookout for what is wrong and to prepare ourselves for the worst.

We are taught to keep our doors, as well as our hearts and minds, closed up and locked tight.

It’s not all that surprising that my glass has appeared a little emptier over time. When the world feels under threat, we feel nervous. In general, we can remain optimistic when we feel like we can exert some influence on a situation, but it’s hard for me to feel that way all the time. It can sometimes feel easier to perceive that I have no influence at all on ‘the world’, leading to a feeling of powerlessness.

One of the key ideas though, is that the world is a fair and just place. Is it? When we look at the natural world, there’s not a lot of fairness there. Usually the biggest or the strongest wins, and fights are often to the death. Such crucial realism, doesn’t have to mean that we should give up all hopes for an optimistic outlook though. Because optimism has some real benefits.

Martin Seligman (psychologist of the positive psychology movement) investigated attributional style optimism and success in sales insurance. He identified the top quartile of attributional style optimists amongst applicants for jobs as life insurance salesmen (extreme optimists) and found those selected on this basis performed much better and stayed in the job for longer than salesmen selected using standard industry tests.

The same mechanism has been found to drive athletic performance both in individuals and team sports. Team performance can be predicted based on assessment of the attributional style optimism of team members and coaches.  The key to performance was perseverance in the face of failure, a product of attributing bad events to one-off, non-pervasive external causes as optimists do.

Research has also shown that optimism is correlated with many positive life outcomes including increased life expectancy, general health, better mental health, increased success in work, greater recovery rates from heart operations and better coping strategies when faced with adversity.

But there’s a downside to optimism too. Too much of this perspective can cause inattention to detail, failure to seek new information and selective inattention to unpromising data can lead us to poorly informed decisions. Apparently extreme optimists have much shorter term financial horizons, save less, work shorter hours, exhibit less financial self control and are less likely to pay off credit card balances than moderate optimists or pessimists.

Harmful risk taking has long been assumed to be a danger of optimism and there is some evidence to support this. Optimism is associated with rationalising beliefs, like for example that lung cancer risk is mainly genetic, most cases of it are generally cured and smoking for a long time without disease developing means they are less likely to be affected. The high general optimism of children, especially boys, seems to be a contributory factor to accidental injury which is the leading cause of death in childhood.

How do we manage all of this? How can we not fall into the hole of become crucial realists/cynical robots, whilst still accepting that not everything in the universe is rainbows and lollipops?

It might just come back to our perspective and our choices. We have the power to accept the things that we can’t change, find the things that we can, and pay attention to the positive or the negative things in life. And some of that is about choosing hope. Bring our awareness to the positive in difficult times is one of the definitions of hope. And according to Emily Dickinson, hope can inspire the good to reveal itself. We won’t find any of the good if we don’t go looking for it.

So, how did I go on the personality test? Pretty much in the middle. Let’s say it was almost half full.

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