Optimism leads to a longer, healthier life…

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude” (Maya Angelou).

Optimism is a significant component of sense of coherence as it relates to a general sense that all things will work out and a reasonably expectation that the future will turn out favourably because of a sense of control over the outcomes that matter most (Antonovsky, 1979; Lee et al., 2019). Not only does optimism reduce our likelihood of suffering from chronic stress, a host chronic health conditions and mental health ailments (Aldao, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Schweizer, 2010), it may also increase our lifespan by 11 to 15% and improve our odds of us living well into our 80’s and beyond (Lee et al., 2019). 

Negative Bias

In the typical human brain, there is a heavy negative bias, meaning that negative events have a far greater emotional impact on us than positive ones, and that negative events linger longer in our memory than positive ones. This negative bias is significantly higher for those who are struggling with depression (Gollan, Hoxha, Hunnicutt-Ferguson, Norris, Rosebrock, Sankin, & Cacioppo, 2016). While negative bias was helpful in keeping us safe in primitive times, it is not so helpful in our modern everyday lives. Becoming more optimistic requires a conscious effort to be mindful when positive events occur, to bring our attention to the positive feelings that result; taking a moment to breathe it in and relish in them. With practice, we can train our brains to pick up on, even look for, the positive aspects of our day, which counter balances our negative bias. 

In the Work Place

Optimistic individuals habitually reappraise workplace stimuli in a positive light and identify opportunities within challenges. We can learn to be more optimistic, cultivating a habit, where we mindfully choose to reframe our perspective.  By doing so, we choose to view the world from a mindset of abundance rather than from a mindset of fear and scarcity. By practicing mindfulness, we are more likely to notice the positive parts of the day such as breathing in the bright blue sky as we look up from our desk or hearing a bird’s song as we walk from our car to our house.  Once we notice the positive, if we take a few moments to attend to it, acknowledge and breath into the way it is making us feel, we are training our brains to focus on the positive rather than fixating on the negative. 

Health and human service work is riddled with events that bring up ethical and or moral dissonance. Most people come to these professions because they want to help others. Feeling unable to do what work sets up serious internal conflict in us. We need to either resolve this dissonance or optimistically re-orient ourselves. Otherwise, we will gravitate toward pessimism and hostility. For example, in a recent qualitative study (Dames, 2018) with novice caregivers, Candice reflected on her workplace challenges, “we push people out the door because the hospital is exploding…knowing they will fall and come right back…the guilt for me is a product of an overwhelmed system.” Similarly, Mary stated, “there is just such a general lack of resources. It can feel like sometimes there is just nothing you can do for them.” Mary and Candace’s’ stress is a product of moral injury, leading to a felt lack of control. Even in these situations that seem unchangeable, if we can act, even in a small way, we bolster our sense of self-efficacy, preventing us from spiralling into feelings of hopelessness.

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us” (Helen Keller, 1929).

Take an Action

While a tendency toward optimism has more well-being benefits than a tendency toward pessimism, sometimes using pessimism to make a change is more important than accepting a situation as it is and re-orienting ourselves around it.  In other words, taking a step back to critically appraise if there is something that can be changed is important; if so, take the steps to change it, if not, accept it and optimistically re-orient yourself. This critical appraisal of events that are causing us discomfort, which may lead to pessimism, enables us to assess the stressor and to determine if we can make a change to remove it. If we apply optimism in every situation, without this objective assessment, it can prevent us from making beneficial changes.  To illustrate this point in the research, Troy (2015) showed a significant relationship between stress, context, and whether we tend toward optimism or positive re-orientation (Troy, 2015). If workplace stress is uncontrollable, where you cannot change the thing or event triggering the stress, employing optimism is the most effective skill to use (Troy, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2010). However, if you can control the stressor or change the context to resolve it, then it is more helpful to employ your self-efficacy to change the context, rather than to positively re-orient your emotions about it (Troy et al., 2010).

Self-efficacy, also an important component of sense of coherence, is the confidence and resulting ability to achieve our goals. Context and self-efficacy determine our ability to manage stressors.  Our workplace context is often littered with stimuli, and it is self-efficacy that prevents us from perceiving those stimuli as stressful. When we reframe our situation optimistically AND tap into a sense of self-efficacy, we are more likely to make changes when we can, and if things cannot be changed, to accept and positively re-orient ourselves.  The Serenity prayer reflects this sentiment:

God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other (Sifton, 1998).