I’m a psychometrician and a coach.
My recent psychometric profile screams pessimist…
And my ongoing study of coaching is telling me there are significant advantages that come with the optimistic mindset…
Accordingly, as you might imagine, this is a personal growth area I’m exploring, and I thought there may be a few of you out there in the same shoes – especially as a year like 2020 comes to a close! In this article, I’ll share some of the attention-grabbing neuroscience insights from the book Neuroscience for Coaches that sparked my curiosity and briefly talk you through some brainstorming I’ve done to forward action off the back of learning something new.
Let’s first start by distinguishing between two types of optimism:
1. Blind optimism - focusing on the positive aspects of a situation to the point you become virtually blind to the potential pitfalls.
2. Realistic optimism - believing in your power to make good things happen, even in rough times. In the words of Heidi Grant: “Realistic optimists believe they will succeed, but also believe they have to make success happen – through things like effort, careful planning, persistence, and choosing the right strategies”.
The type of optimism that is likely to service us more than cost us is realistic optimism. It links quite closely with having a growth mindset when you read Grant’s definition, no?! I really enjoyed learning about the growth mindset concept in Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, if you care to explore further.
Now let’s look at some of the research presented in Neuroscience for Coaches (NFC):
1 - There are studies that indicate optimism has “benefits to our physical health, which include living longer and more healthily. Even in those people who do get sick, such as with cancer or AIDS, the survival time of these people who are also optimists is greater than the pessimists” (NFC). “Optimists enjoy reduced stress levels [and] catch fewer infections and have stronger immune systems”; “even in the professional world, optimists come out on top with higher pay than others” (NFC).
Quite a compelling list of benefits, right? If you’re curious to learn more about the specific literature Brann is referring to here, she has a list of references at the end of her book. In a different, but relevant chapter, she offers up examples of research that support the positive power of envisioning success to achieve our goals – I’m going to make an educated guess that optimists would be likely to have a tendency to engage in this behaviour as well!
2 - In Suzanne Segerstrom’s 2007 study where a group of people were given anagrams to complete, including an impossible one, the findings show that optimists spent more time trying to solve [the impossible anagram]. It is hypothesized that this trait of being persistent stands the optimists in good stead for life, enabling them to achieve more – simply through being committed to doing more” (NFC). Brann is quick to note that persistence is a good trait under the right circumstances; there certainly are circumstances where it is healthier and safer for us to halt our efforts towards a goal.
3 - So as you have started to pick up on, I’m not here selling you a perfect 'good news' story – of course, there are limiting aspects of the optimistic mindset as well. “Optimism can pose risks, including people behaving in ways that are not as precautionary as would be good for them” (NFC). To expand on this, Brann shares that research has shown that “extreme optimists are more likely than mild optimists to smoke and fail to put aside savings”, for example (NFC). The ‘optimism bias’, the tendency to presume bad things won’t happen to us, can be a slippery slope… People can underestimate all types of things: how likely they are to get divorced, suffer from cancer, be involved in a car accident, or even how long a project will take (NFC). I personally imagine this bias mostly playing out when someone is blindly optimistic, but that’s just my intuition!
Turning these insights into initial actions for personal development:
For me, reading this chapter of Brann’s book got my thinking about what belief systems of mine lead me to be less optimistic in ways that limit me. I have set an intention to reflect on the stories I tell myself about future events in and outside work; with the self-awareness I gain from this reflection, I will literally rewrite those narratives on paper and practice reframing when I catch myself falling into limiting pessimism. I also like the idea of bringing more envisioning of success into my work life, ie. when I kick off a project.
Think: What insight resonated with you that can you apply in your professional and/or personal life to self-develop, whether it’s injecting more optimism into the way you look at things or keeping an eye on your tendency to be optimistic not going too far?
If you feel you could use a focused space to work on mindset and healthy perspective-taking, contact the Acre Frameworks team to link up with one of our professional coaches, including myself, to discuss this support further by email at firstname.lastname@example.org at +44 (0)20 7400 5570.