Optimism: A Vital Part of Resilience

Optimism: A Vital Part of Resilience

John ThurmanBy John Thurman14 Minutes

“The sun will come out tomorrow!”
Little Orphan Annie

Optimism is a vital part of resilience. Without optimism it is difficult to move through tough times, particularly these past few months.

In this article, I will show you how optimism is a vital part of resilience.

Could it be that we are beginning to see the country cautiously opening up? I hope so, I am ready to experience the new normal. Are you?

I have been working from home since March 13 and my wife of 48 years, and I still like each other at least 5 days out of the week.

How are you doing? Are you one of those folks who see the glass half-full or half-empty? Believe it or not, how you answer the question may reveal how resilient you are!

Here is a definition that I have embraced which comes from Dr. George Everly’s book Stronger (2015), a thought leader in Disaster Mental Health.

Personal resilience, or psychological body armor, is your ability to bounce back, pick yourself up, and try again until you succeed or decide on a more productive direction.

Optimistic people seem to be hardwired to be hopeful most of the time and consistently see the good things in life.

The word optimist has an ancient root system coming from the Latin word ‘optimim,’ meaning the best. For our purposes, practical optimism is a mindset that helps individuals focus on the positive parts of life rather than the negative ones. It is a personality style that routinely displays resilience and personal strength.

Optimism is all about perspective!

Dr. Marty Seligman Learned Optimism (1991) discovered this trait in his early work on “learned helplessness.” Over time others, including those of us that work in the Disaster Mental Health Field, noted that people with this optimistic bent seemed to recover faster after natural or man-made disasters.

Study after study reveals that optimism is a vital part of resilience.

Let’s play a little memory game. Do you remember the story of The Little Engine that Could? Click the link to re-read the story. The key line from the story is, “I think I can! I think I can! I think I can. I hope the memory of this story brings a smile to your face.

Now I’d like you to turn your attention to story that has more of an adult theme. I want to ask you to pause and take a moment to read this next little story aloud. Read it slowly, and as you do, hear what it says.

Treasure Hunters and Trash Collectors

It seems that in life, there are two types of people.

The first are treasure hunters. Every day they seek out what is useful and positive. They focus on it, talk about it, and think about it.

Each of these moments is treasured like a bright, shining jewel that they store in their treasure chest forever.

And then there are trash collectors who spend their lives looking for what is wrong, unfair, and not working. They focus their energy, time, and thoughts on the trash, and every day, they put that trash into a big trashcan.

The treasure hunters proudly carry their treasure into the future, while the trash collectors drag their heavy, smelly trashcan from one day to the next.

The question is: When they get to the end of the year, what does each person have — a treasure chest filled with useful, positive memories, or a trash can full of things they didn’t like? The choice is yours. You get to decide.[i]

Hopefully, you are finding yourself in a position of wanting to increase your practical optimism.

The fantastic news is that all current research is revealing how powerful the concept of practical optimism.

While I am excited about all that modern science reveals, the ideas of joy and optimism are as old as recorded history.

One of my favorite pieces of ancient wisdom literature is Proverbs 17:22 NLT

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength.

Powerful words!

From what I can tell there are at least five practical truths about practical optimism.

So, what are some of the benefits of practical optimism?

  • Optimism traditionally considered to be an unchangeable trait, is a way of thinking that can be learned and enhanced.
  • It is directly associated with reduced depression, anxiety, and stress.
  • Optimistic individuals are overall healthy-physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
  • Practical optimism enhances resilience and coping skills.
  • Optimism helps you accept yourself unconditionally and practice self-compassion.

Let’s go deeper.

The balance of this article comes from a couple of articles I penned in 2018 and 2019.

Dr. Sonya Lyubomirsky, UC Riverside, shares the various types of optimism practically.

Big optimism: The deep feeling that things are going well and that this is a great time to be alive.

Little optimism: General optimism about day to day circumstances, making it through the day, and meeting your obligations.

Very small optimism: The lowest form of optimism, but the comforting belief that you will make it through the day.

Full disclosure: Although being positive/optimistic is talked about as if it is one thing. It is entirely possible to be optimistic in some regions of our lives but pessimistic in others. After all, last time I checked, we are all human.

Let’s take a look at the practical side of the idea of optimism.

While feeling positive and optimistic can be a necessity. Still, momentary state-like a burst of insight or a temporary feeling of joy, I’m referring to a more stable, enduring personality feature. This kind of optimism includes skills such as acceptance, resilience, flexibility, and coping skills.

Dr. Caroline Dweck, author of The Growth Mindset (2012), and Dr. Elaine Fox’s Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain (2012), have written some keen insights into this type of optimism.

A closed-minded person sees problems, as setbacks rather than opportunities. On the other hand, an optimist is to be more alert to opportunities, less risk-averse, and tend to be “all in.”

Fox writes, “Dispositional optimism is not just about being happy and upbeat. It is more about having genuine hope for the future, a sincere belief that things will work out, a deep abiding faith that they can deal with whatever life throws at them. Optimists are not naive; they don’t believe that nothing will ever go wrong, but they do have a deep-seated conviction that they can cope. Optimists have a natural tendency and faith to accept the world for what it is but have a deeply held belief that the way you deal with things determine who you are.”

A considerable part of being an optimistic person is a proper understanding of being in control. The opposite of this is feeling like the future is hopeless can make a pessimist passive since everything they attempt seems to fail. In sharp contrast, an optimistic person believes that their actions matter and that they have active input into their outcomes.
Being an optimistic, hopeful person is more than feeling good and upbeat. It is genuinely about being intentionally engaged with a meaningful life, becoming a more resilient person, and feeling in control. This, in my opinion, is significantly enhanced when one is actively engaged in their faith.

Practiced Optimism and Resilience

So, what are some of the benefits of learning and being a more optimistic person? What are some realistic expectations if you make a choice to become more optimistic?

Increased happiness and a sense of well-being. Optimistic people tend to be happy, partially because they perceive positive events more vividly and expect good to occur.

Increased positive emotions and strengthened relationships. Because optimistic people generally have a more upbeat mood, an increased sense of personal vitality, and a strong sense of self. They feel they have some control over their destiny. As a result, the positive energy radiates out because positive people tend to be easily liked by others.

Less negative emotions. “The defining characteristic of pessimists is they tend to believe bad events will last a long time. This mindset will undermine everything they do, and that all of these negative things are their fault. On the other hand, the optimist, when confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, thinks about misfortune oppositely. They tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback and that there will be a way to overcome or adapt positively. They think that they have what they need or know how to access help if it is required.

Improved health. Optimists, as a general rule of thumb, live longer, and are less likely to die from accidents or violent acts because they tend to take active steps to protect themselves.

Improved performance. Optimistic, positive people tend to put more genuine effort towards their goals and dreams. In a nutshell, they tend to be more successful because they have commitment and tenacity.

Better coping skills which lead to increased resilience. As a general rule, optimists tend to cope better with adversity because they face it and, on a deep level, believe that they can rise to the challenge. One prominent person who comes to mind is Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991. He puts it this way, “Optimism and hope related to how we think and feel about the future. If we really believe that things will work out for the best, all setbacks become easier to deal with.

This can lead to a more vibrant faith that can find contentment and peace regardless of circumstances. The Apostle Paul said:

Not that I was ever in need, for I was never in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I have discovered the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty or little. I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. Philippians 4:11-13

[i] Wilson, D. L., & Conyers, M. A. (2011). BrainSMART: 60 strategies for Increasing Student Learning. Orlando, FL: BrainSMART.p.243

Reprinted with permission from John Thurman.