Optimists have all the fun.

Hundreds of studies have reported that optimists are happier, in better physical shape, and live longer than pessimists.

More important from our point of view, they retain staff better and get better results than pessimists. Optimism is an important characteristic of successful visionary leaders.

But what exactly is optimism, and can you develop it or are you born optimistic?

Optimism is generally taken to mean an expectation that things will turn out well. That happy events will last, and rub off on our lives as a whole, while unhappy events can be overcome. Pessimists feel the opposite – that the world is an unfriendly place and good events are aberrations.

These expectations may be based on experience, but the experiences are filtered through the explanations given to us by our parents, teachers and friends – and our work culture.

Most studies report that the general phenomena of well-being, happiness, optimism etc are a fairly even mixture of genetic pre-disposition and learned behaviour. And if you can learn it, you can learn it at any age.

The importance of talk

There is no doubt that the real events influence how optimistic or pessimistic we become. But how we interpret and talk about those events seems to matter even more.

Optimists and pessimists tend to explain events in different ways. This is called our ‘explanatory style’ and it focuses on how ‘permanent’ the impact of an event is and how ‘widespread’ the impact is. 

Optimists tend to see the impact of GOOD events as widespread and permanent, BAD events as limited and temporary.

Pessimists are the opposite: they see impact of GOOD events as limited and temporary, BAD events as widespread and permanent.

As slightly ‘dramatic’ examples:

  • A pessimist breaks his leg and has to be off work for two weeks. Before long he is thinking that he will lose his job, the loss of income will mean he loses his flat, and then his partner will leave him. An optimist will think “Hmmm. Two weeks of work. I can start work on my novel”.
  • A pessimist sees a £50 note in the street and thinks “If it were a genuine £50 note someone would have picked it up by now, and if someone sees me picking it up I’ll probably be mugged on my way home.” The optimist picks it up and gives it to a charity thinking it might make a huge difference to someone’s life. 

So, the glass-half-full personality will look on the bright side, while the glass-half-empty person does the opposite. And this seems to make a difference to how well we cope with the world. Glass-half-full people actually seem to do better.

In other words, stuff happens, but the evidence indicates that the way we talk about events influences how we feel about them, and vice versa.

As leaders it is important to emphasise and celebrate positive results, as well as acknowledging and dealing with poor results.

What is not helpful is to ruminate about negative events, or let cynicism be the main tone for interpreting events in or around your team at work. There is an almost tangible difference between a team culture born of cynicism, and a culture based on optimism.

Moods are contagious, and optimism (and pessimism) can spread. Most helpful in creating an optimistic culture is to challenge the nay-sayers who spread cynicism. Quite often this is more a matter of habit than maliciousness, but the way events are talked about influences the culture, and should be addressed.

The good news about pessimism

One of the most intriguing findings of the optimism research is that pessimists actually see the world more accurately than optimists. Which means you need your inner pessimist (or the team pessimist) to help you make a decision when there are serious consequences at stake. “Tempered optimism” is the jargon.

So in general, keep your rose-tinted spectacles handy – a positive, slightly inaccurate, view of the world will keep you and your team motivated and successful.

Just be sure to take them off when you’re finalising the budget.

Quick tip

Doing what optimistic leaders do. Practice makes perfect. To try behaving like an optimistic leader:

  1. Think of a good event that happened to you or your team recently. Did you use it as an opportunity to talk about how well things were going in general and how your team was making a positive difference?
  2. Think of a negative event that happened. Did you accept that it was a temporary setback but express confidence that success was still achievable?
  3. Reflecting on 1 and 2, what can you learn about your ‘explanatory style’? How can you shift it to a ‘tempered optimism’ approach?

The Speaking Constructively exercise will also help you to improve your conversations - as an individual or a team.