Optimism is A Vital Skill That Can Be Learned and Improved

Try on a “positive lens”

Max Phillips
Nov 6, 2020 · 6 min read
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Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

According to Talent Smart, 90% of the top performers have high emotional intelligence. Moreover, according to the Center for Creative Leadership, 75% of careers are “derailed for reasons related to emotional competencies, including the inability to handle interpersonal problems.” In an ever more cutthroat world, optimism is a critical trait. Not just in the handling of yourself, but how others see you as well.

It’s not entirely down to you, though. Studies have shown that optimism is 25% inheritable. So, it certainly has a lot to do with your upbringing. Karol Ward, a licensed psychotherapist, told NBC News:

“From an early age, babies and children pick up the emotional vibes in their homes. If the atmosphere is relaxed and loving, children blossom even if they innately have a tendency towards anxiety. But if the home environment is tense and filled with dysfunction, optimism is one of the first things to go.

It’s hard to be emotionally open and hopeful when that is not being modelled for you by your caretakers.”

Indeed, it would be challenging to think positively if your life has been devoid of a relaxed and loving atmosphere. So in that sense, it’s out of your control. There is, however, room for you to develop optimism as an adult. Here are the steps you need to take to do that.

Find How Optimistic You Are

Psychologist Martin Seligman, considered the father of positive psychology, developed the ABCDE model. He designed it to help people discover how optimistic they are, highlighting the areas of their mindset they need to work on. It works like this:

  • Adversity: Any situation you’ve faced that requires a response such as losing your job.
  • Belief: Make a note of your honest feelings toward the situation. For example: “I don’t know how I’m going to find a new job.”
  • Consequence: Ask yourself what sort of behaviour resulted from your beliefs. Was it positive or negative? For example, you may become a recluse and give up trying to search for a new opportunity.
  • Disputation: Look for an example that proves your beliefs wrong. For instance, think about the time you went out and got the job you just lost.
  • Energisation: By this point, you’ve challenged your beliefs. Ask yourself: how did it make you feel? Now that you’ve seen all isn’t lost, you can feel energised and work toward your goal.

The critical takeaway from the ABCDE model? Look for times in your life when you’ve overcome a struggle and use them as fuel to power your next steps. Use your own experiences in the fight against yourself.

Try-On a “Positive Lens”

When you view a situation in a positive light, you are rewiring your brain, according to research done by Dr Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. He concluded that the more you reframe situations in a positive light, the more you are training your brain to ignite in different areas. Slowly but surely, you’re creating a new way of thinking.

Action tip: Dr Aparna Iyer, psychiatrist and assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical Centre, suggests “positive reframing.” For example, if it’s raining outside and you can’t play football, think about the cuddle you had with your loved one or the book you finally started.

Take Note of the Overly Negative People in Your Life

One of the most inspiring pieces of advice I’ve heard was from the late Sam Burns. In his TED talk, Sam says this about his friends:

“We see each other for who we are on the inside.”

Sam’s illness, which killed him not long after he gave the talk, made his skin tight and caused him to age rapidly. It’s why he understood the importance of surrounding yourself with people you want to be around. Indeed, Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Harvard Medical School, found that happiness is contagious. His research concludes that having a happy spouse, neighbour or friend within a mile of you can increase the chances of you being happy.

Action tip: Instead of being quick to dispel the negative people from your life, adopt a more forgiving approach. Promote positive behaviour first and try to change a pessimists mind. You never know what good it could do them.

Consume the News in More Balanced Ways

A 2019 report published by the Pew Research Centre concluded that 55% of Americans now get their news from social media. Moreover, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found “a causal link between usage of social media and loneliness and depression,” according to Psych Central.

24/7 news channels, with the help of easily-accessible social media, can feel like a constant worst-case scenario. Multiple times a day, I receive notifications from a news app outlining the latest coronavirus death figures. I go on Twitter to see whatever horrible news story is breaking today. Consuming the news like this is imbalanced. Sure, keep up to date with things, but to get a better understanding, have a conversation with your family about the election, for example. This way, you can get another discourse and generate genuine conversation.

Action tip: Turn off the notifications for social media on your phone. That way, you’re getting rid of the anticipation you feel and will be less likely to check it.

Don’t Ignore Your Struggles

Psychotherapist Kimberly Hershenson says you should “approach hardship in a more productive way” for more positive thinking. Put it this way — ignoring your issues will inevitably make them worse in the future. An optimist doesn’t fear the worst — they embrace the positives.

Experts on stress have found evidence that suggests the way you view it has a significant impact on how it affects you. For instance, a study asked people who experienced high levels of stress how they viewed it. Those who said it negatively affected them were 43% more likely to die than those who said it positively affected them. Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal says that once you experience stress, “it can be easier to face each new challenge.”

Experts on optimism, however, say the difference between it and pessimism is not how they perceive a situation, but how they cope. On this, Dr Iyer says:

“Optimists do acknowledge negative events, but they are more likely to avoid blaming themselves for the bad outcome, inclined to view the situation as a temporary one and likely to expect further positive events in the future.”

This is the sustainable answer to more optimism. By acknowledging events, positive and negative, you are ensuring your ability to bring wishful thinking from fantasy land into the real world. You’re enhancing your optimism. Combine realistic thinking with optimism, and you’re on to a winner. If you imagine yourself as the CEO of a company after you’ve just lost a job, you risk slipping into a warped reality. By acknowledging the issues keeping you from those goals, you can take action.

Action tip: Write down a list. On one side, note the things out of your control — e.g. being made redundant. On the other side, record what you can control — e.g. fixing your CV and applying for new jobs.


If there was one lesson I want you to take away from the article, it’s this: optimism doesn’t come about by wishful thinking and unactionable expectations. You need to blend your inner realist and optimist. When a negative situation presents itself, remind yourself how you’ve overcome hardship in the past. Use that memory as renewed motivation, but don’t get your head in the clouds. The road to optimistic thinking starts with the small steps you take. Lay your issues out on the table and go from there.

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