The Road to Optimism

Rick Griggs, MA

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So there we were, 12 young, fidgety, amateur athletes focused on hearing why this seemingly normal man hated “have a nice day.” My young brain was too distracted by the City-by-the-Bay, and I don’t recall his exact reasoning, but I clearly remember that he didn't take kindly to all those yellow smiley faces.

What we say matters. The words we choose directly impact ourselves and everyone around us. A good way to look at optimism is to notice how we explain things—a sick pet, a bad month, an angry client. Some people will explain events in a way that leads to depression and resentment, while others will discuss the same situations with courageous, solution-filled ideas.

There are two kinds of explanatory style: 

  • Optimistic explanatory style describes good and bad events that happen in your profession or practice in a very particular way—good things in the practice are normal, while bad things in the practice won't last. 
  • Pessimistic explanatory style describes the bad stuff as normal, and anything good as fleeting or unusual. 

Both styles interpret the exact same events differently.

For example, you're due at a conference and you miss the flight. The optimist sees this as an unlucky, rare event; the next flight might not be for another 2 hours, but the extra reading time will be nice. The pessimist however will complain to the ticket agent, and mutter that this always happens, or how much he or she hates the airline. Two hours of their day will be wasted.

Is pessimism ever good?  Occasional pessimism is a form of reality that helps us see the truth, and when you’re faced with danger, or in the company of someone blindly optimistic, pessimism can save the day. It's good for pessimists to speak up, because once in a while they'll “save the village.” But remember, in any family or practice, constant pessimism gets old and eventually is ignored, which is perhaps why eternal pessimists become resentful and even vengeful.

Are you content or happy? It is easier to define contentment than happiness. We'd all love to be happy all the time, but it’s easy to see that money, fame, and popularity don't seem to produce happiness. How have those magical letters after your name that you earned, or that person who is now your partner, made you feel? Contented, yes; happy, maybe. Hedonic adaptation is the term for when you have become used to the great new thing in your life and it no longer fills you with giddy happiness. Contentment is easier to reach, and leads to more optimism. Feeling good about what you have and who you are can lead to contentment. Feelings of contentment open the door to optimism.

Contentment is also knowing what satisfies or pleases you, and using that as a reward for your good work. See the connection? For some people, happiness isn’t having to work hard, but contented, optimistic people see work as meaningful activity followed by fun consequences. 

I see four kinds of dues:

1.Pay your optimism dues. I spent 3 long years writing a book about optimism—yes, I wondered about that, too! Frustrated,  broke, contracted to publish, and forced to do the writing, I added a  “Paying Your Dues” chapter, which helped me stay optimistic when I really wanted to do something illegal.

2.Survival dues. These are the average “just get by” dues people choose to pay for minimum rewards. If popping open a beer at 3 PM and not thinking about work again until the next day makes these people content, they have a chance at optimism and contentment.

3.Achievement dues. Many people make extra efforts to reach what they believe will be a better place. These high achievers study harder, exercise more, get more degrees, and work harder to improve their contribution and effectiveness in life. When their expectation of reward matches the achievement dues they willingly pay, they also have a chance at optimism and contentment.

4.Legacy dues. Here it gets weird. Legacy dues are the confusing, prolonged efforts some people make to get a reward far in the future. People who pay legacy dues have trouble explaining it to family and friends, because most people don't understand the pain and disappointment that go along with prolonged, extreme efforts. It gets worse. At least with survival and achievement dues, you get paid and see results, whereas strangely, legacy dues are almost always late. It takes patience and understanding to remain optimistic while waiting for the payoff from legacy dues.

Four Ways to Achieve Optimism:

1.Explain your life and practice in a different way (notice and expect good things).
2.Exercise and take care of your body (use regular habits, not pumped-up motivation).
3.Do the hard things first at home and at work (get them out of the way early).
4.Expect rewards based only on the dues you've paid (be patient, work, and wait).

Those who successfully walk their road to optimism see the world as it might be, but also just as it is. They are realists who understand cause and effect. If things happen for a reason, they do something about the reason. They don't sit around wishing and hoping, dreading or dreaming. They learn what is needed, gather their resources, and become masters at taking action. These people create their optimism.

I'm pleased to hear someone say “Have a nice day,” and mean it. Sometimes though, I drift back to that foggy, college excursion. Maybe that man had a point. I just wish I could remember it.

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