We all live in the same world. And yet the world each of us experiences is very different – not because things are different on the outside, but because the inner landscape each of us inhabits varies so much from person to person. It has been said that we do not see the world as it is, but as we are – we filter the world through our experiences and expectations, casting a net of symbolic meaning over reality.
We cannot get to the ‘truth’ – there is only interpretation or the imposition of meaning. We all tell ourselves stories about what is happening ‘out there,’ and these stories become the maps which allow us to navigate through the complex landscape of reality.
Psychologists such as Martin Seligman have studied the ways in which people explain reality to themselves – their ‘explanatory style,’ and studies in the emerging field of ‘positive psychology’ have revealed that the way we interpret the world has a significant and tangible impact on many areas of life. Optimists, it seems, have some serious advantages over pessimists: their maps serve them better.
Optimism is closely related to success in many areas, from business to sport. Studies have shown, for example, that sportspeople with a more optimistic way of seeing things significantly outperform those with a more pessimistic explanatory style, and some companies even try to recruit more optimistic people.
The ability to ‘bounce back’ is one of the keys to success. Some very successful business people have failed many times: in the early 1990s, for example, Donald Trump went bankrupt and was left with $900 million of debt. But his resilience saw him rise and become successful once again. Optimists see a bright future, and this leads to greater resilience and persistence and hence greater levels of achievement.
Optimists expect good things to happen – they worry less about the future than the pessimistic. Negative events are seen as temporary setbacks and optimists believe that, sooner or later, life always turns out in their favour. They take more risks and have more self belief. As a result of all this, optimists tend to experience less stress.
Health – physical and emotional
Studies have shown that young people who are optimistic stay healthier for longer, and also that optimists have lower rates of infectious diseases. Optimists also experience greater emotional well being.
Optimism can literally lead to a longer life. Studies have shown that people with an optimistic outlook have a greater lifespan. In one study, for example, breast cancer patients who were more optimistic survived longer than pessimists.
The good news is that optimism – like any other way of thinking – is a mental habit that can be developed. Although thoughts sometimes seem to happen to us, in fact they are own creations and under our control.
Some of us seem to be born with a more naturally optimistic outlook than others but, with practice, anyone can develop a more positive ‘explanatory style.’ In the next post, I’ll make some observations on how to go about this.