Answer the question “Why be an optimist?” not difficult. Perhaps, the famous politician Winston Churchill succeeded in doing this better than others: “A pessimist sees difficulties at every opportunity, an optimist sees opportunities in every difficulty.”
Who is an optimist? It is customary to consider him a person who believes that in the future he will have more good events than bad ones, and that his actions will lead to the achievement of his goals. But optimism manifests itself not only in the tone of our forecasts for the future, but also in how we perceive the events of the present and the past.
Our life largely depends on how we ourselves evaluate it – whether we put a positive or negative meaning into what is happening. The ancient Greek philosophers-Stoics were the first to write about this: Epictetus, for example, said that it is not our adversity that upsets us, but how we relate to them. Gottfried Leibniz, Voltaire, Arthur Schopenhauer wrote about optimism, this topic was studied by Daniel Defoe and Leo Tolstoy. Following philosophers and writers, psychologists began to study optimism.
Success and helplessness
The first step was to study the psychological mechanisms of success. In the mid-1960s, American psychologist Julian Rotter suggested that people who make themselves responsible for the events of their own lives tend to be more active and achieve more than those who tend to blame external circumstances for everything.
The American psychologist Bernard Weiner was interested in another aspect: why some people, faced with setbacks, quickly give up, while others do not stop efforts, no matter what? He suggested that this directly depends on what they see as the reason for their success and failure.
In the process of research, for example, it turned out that children who do well in school believe that their achievements are the result of their abilities, and random failures are associated with the fact that they did not try enough. Those who do not study so well attribute their success to the ease of the task or accidental luck, and the failure is attributed to lack of ability.
An optimist is an active agent who can change the surrounding reality and on whom a lot depends
However, the greatest contribution to understanding optimism was made by Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania (USA). He came to this problem through the study of depression and pessimism: his father was paralyzed, and Seligman sought to understand why a calm and balanced person can so quickly lose interest in life.
Through a series of experiments, Seligman identified and described the phenomenon of so-called learned helplessness in animals and humans.
Its essence lies in the fact that after being exposed to unpleasant influences for some time and not being able to control them, most of the subjects gradually come to the conclusion that efforts are meaningless and give up. Even when the opportunity arises to avoid suffering, they continue to passively endure without trying to do anything.
These studies led Martin Seligman to ponder whether deliberate effort could be used to develop an optimistic style of thinking. The result of his research was the creation of a positive psychology, which studies concepts such as “happiness”, “optimism”, “positive emotions”.
Professions for optimists and pessimists
Martin Seligman devoted several studies to the study of professions in which optimists and pessimists could realize themselves with the greatest success, and came to interesting conclusions. The most suitable professions for optimists are those where you need to take risks, invent, be persistent and find a way out of difficult situations: researchers and developers, planners, marketers. Optimism is absolutely essential for insurance agents: when faced with rejections, they must be persistent and not take failure personally.
There are professions for pessimists: accountant, lawyer, financial director, business administrator, safety engineer – in other words, those in which, first of all, creativity and drive are important, but discretion. Paying attention to our inherent style of explanation – optimistic or pessimistic – in time, we are more likely to be able to choose a profession that matches our characteristics and meets our expectations.
How do we explain to ourselves what happened
Why do some people easily become helpless victims of circumstances, while others stubbornly resist? This question led Martin Seligman to develop the concept of “style of explanation” – this term he proposed to designate the way a person is used to explaining the reasons for what is happening.
The style of explanation can be optimistic or pessimistic. In stressful situations, it depends on the style of explanation that is familiar to a person whether he surrenders to the will of circumstances or will continue to fight.
In a pessimistic style of explanation, negative events are described with constant and universal characteristics (“It will always be so with everything I touch”), and vice versa, positive events in a pessimistic style of explanation are considered random, temporary and caused by external causes.
On the contrary, with an optimistic style of explanation, negative events are explained by external, temporary and specific reasons (“This is how circumstances developed, it will pass quickly”), and positive events are explained as permanent, universal and caused by personal reasons, such as abilities.
Which side are the advantages?
Optimism is not just the absence of pessimism, but a qualitatively different state. An optimist does not seek to control everything that is happening around him, but at the same time believes that he is not a puppet in the hands of fate or other people, but an active agent who can change the surrounding reality and on whom a lot depends.
According to a number of studies carried out at different times by various scientists (including Martin Seligman), optimists live on average longer and recover better after undergoing operations, they are confident, and also suffer less from mental illness.
Optimists are more satisfied with family life, have more friends, and others like them more often. They are more successful in their careers and more inclined to come up with creative ideas. This is quite natural: the thinking of a person who does not have the habit of dwelling on bad things and is used to finding a way out of any situation is more flexible, free and open.
Pessimists are also successful in their activities, but all other things being equal, an optimist always achieves more: for him, failure in solving one problem does not mean that he cannot cope with others.
“I feel optimistic when …
…I’m chatting with friends. I have always been fascinated by people who are able to find in the bad, albeit a little bit, but good. Their vital energy is contagious, they gush with ideas and thoughts, by their example they make me become better every day. These people are invaluable to me. Thanks to them, I easily go through life’s vicissitudes, while hoping that nothing can break me … “
Tatiana, 22 years old
Can you learn to be optimistic?
One or another style of explanation is formed from early childhood: watching how the mother and father react to life events, we unconsciously internalize and adopt parental models of behavior. Feedback is even more important: depending on how the mother perceives the child’s actions, whether he considers his failures to be a disaster, he himself will evaluate what is happening in the future.
It takes time to overcome the established stereotypes, and yet you can “retrain”. This can be done consciously (with the help of special aids or a psychotherapist) or spontaneously: for example, a person who grew up with pessimistic parents can get into a family of optimists after the wedding, unconsciously adopt their style of explanation and eventually feel happier.
All the many situations in life that we face can be divided into those that we are able to control and those that are beyond our control. The most rational way of perceiving them is best formulated in the famous Protestant prayer: “God, give me the strength to change what I can change, give me the courage to accept what I cannot change, and wisdom to distinguish one from the other.”
It is this – realistic, but positive and open – view of the world that can be considered the hallmark of true, enlightened optimism.
- Tamara Gordeeva “Psychology of achievement motivation”, Sense, 2006.