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Glass half full or half empty?

Optimists can be annoying. For them, anything is possible: “To hell with time-constraints, I will achieve what I need to at all costs.” They believe good things will invariably happen to them and any negative setbacks are temporary and will soon be overcome.

The unlucky pessimist, on the other hand, will go: “I screwed up as always; things will never change and anything good that ever happens to me is down to luck.”

Apparently pessimists (or realists as I prefer to call them), are shown in psychological tests to have higher death rates over a 30-year period than optimists, possibly because optimists eat more fruit and veg and exercise more than pessimists.

Even the chippiest of people cannot be totally ignorant of the current parlous world state; heavy over-population, pending environmental doom and financial meltdown? But no, they persist in Pangloss’ (the character in Voltaire’s novel, Candide), view of ‘the best of all possible worlds’ and always look on the bright side, assuming their positivism will eventually win out and everything will be for the best.

Murphy’s Law states that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, and Suzanne Segerstrom, professor of psychology at Kentucky University, actually wrote a book called, Breaking Murphy’s Law. In it she says, optimism is not as much about being positive, as being motivated and persistent.

Along with other rose-tinted eyewear-wearing colleagues, Dr Segerstrom, considers that, rather than walking away in disgust at the first sign of failure, optimists attack problems head-on. They plan a course of action, they may ask for advice and then will focus on solutions. If they want something badly enough, they will probably get it. How selfish.

A propensity towards positivism is partly genetic, but also strongly influenced by childhood (the two are obviously intextricably linked). Parents who bolster a child’s self-esteem, will probably inculcate that ‘can-do’ attitude.

However, even if your parents were rubbish, you can probably pick up or learn these positive attitudes as an adult.

Segerstrom says it is easier to change behaviour than emotions and endorses trendy CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) methods; “Act first and the feelings will follow. People can learn to be more optimistic by acting as if they were more optimistic. Become more engaged and persistent in the pursuit of goals.”

Isn’t that just kidding yourself?

She and her colleagues recommend ending each day by writing down three positive events that have happened, to avoid negative self-talk and to dwell on the positive aspects of all situations, rather than focusing on the negatives.

Whatever your job, focus on the fulfilling (if you’re a cleaner, admire your clean floors), surround yourself with upbeat people (not always easy in the workplace) and concentrate on situations you can control (cleaning floors nicely?), and forget those you can’t (like getting a better job?).

There is, however, another way of looking at this seemingly black and white dichotomy.

Optimists view pessimists as depressing and negative; but pessimists think of optimists as completely out of touch with reality, totally deluded Polyannas, in what is a nasty, cruel world.

Since time immemorial, psychologists have considered whether it is more advantageous for the human condition to adopt a positive or negative outlook on life.

Obviously, optimism makes people feel better about life, but being a natural pessimist and thinking the worst, can help some people cope with the world better.

But, it’s not really just about which approach is better. Everyone knows that it is difficult to predict the future; we may make plans, but life is unpredictable and things can always go wrong.

Because things are uncertain, some people choose to think optimistically, because it motivates them to keep trying. For others, a negative mindset can serve the same purpose; thinking about what can go wrong protects them in the event of things going wrong.

In both cases, we are working in the service of motivation, providing a protective shield against Shakespeare’s, “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.

In a 2011 study, Social Cognition, by Abigail Hazlett and colleagues, optimists were discovered to have ‘promotion focus’, meaning they liked to think about how they could advance and grow. Pessimists, on the other hand, were more concerned with security and safety.

Using anagrams as a tool for problem solving, participants were split into two groups; while solving the anagrams, half were encouraged to think optimistic thoughts and half negative thoughts. Natural tendencies were noted, so some would be utilising their preferred strategy, while others were forced to think against the grain.

The results showed that pessimists performed better when thinking negative thoughts and that the optimists were more engaged with the tasks when thinking positive thoughts.

It also turned out that people’s performance depended on how persistent they were at trying to crack the anagrams. It seemed that when the optimists were using their preferred positive thinking strategy, they were more consistent. And the same went for the pessimists, who were most successful when thinking negative thoughts.

So, essentially both positivism and negativism have important roles to play in people’s lives. Being optimistic lets them follow their goals in a positive way, to think big and go forward; being negative helps reduce natural anxiety and to perform better.

Interestingly, it seems that pessimists respond better to negative feedback; they like to hear what the problems are, so they can correct them; pessimists generate negative thoughts in order to perform better.

Optimists respond better to positive feedback and they generate their own feedback by thinking their positive thoughts.

So, it’s different strokes for different folks; two totally opposing, but nevertheless, effective strategies for coping with an unpredictable world.

So whether your glass is permanently half full or half empty; cheers, salute, prost, or nostrovia.

Nigel Phillips

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