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How to cultivate optimism

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This is the fifth post in our six-part series on resilience, where we examine the key drivers that provide a recipe for building resilience for yourself, your teams, and your workforce. Each post will feature real-world stories of human resilience.

As the days and weeks turn into months and uncertainty remains the only constant, it invites the question: How optimistic are you about the future? And, if you’re feeling less optimistic, is there anything you can do to flip the script?

BetterUp’s research has found that optimism has declined since the start of the pandemic. To find out how people’s optimism is being tested around the world, we went to the frontlines with our coaches. We wanted to hear how they are helping professionals move from a place of pessimism to one of optimism.

It’s all about the stories we tell

Our coaches shared numerous stories with me that highlight how pessimism is leading to negative predictions about the long-term effects of the pandemic—for our careers, our children, and our society. James Rees, a BetterUp Coach based in London, shared that he’s seen these negative predictions often lead to self-sabotaging behaviors. People become overly critical of themselves and each small mistake becomes mounting evidence that the negative predictions of the future would surely come true. Remember last week’s post on self-compassion?

Enter explanatory style 

What happens for you when you bump up against a problem or challenge? What goes through your head? How do you feel? What stories do you tell yourself? Your “explanatory style,” or how you explain these events to yourself, has a lot to do with how you experience your reality and—ultimately—with your wellbeing. Optimism is the label we use when that story is more hopeful and confident about the future. Pessimism is when those stories tend to be more negative and the negative outcomes feel more personal, permanent, and pervasive. 

For many of the professionals that James is coaching, the ability to envision a brighter future has become more challenging during the pandemic. In the absence of all the information, we tend to fill in the gaps with worst-case scenarios. This is a habit sometimes referred to as awfulizing. There are a number of tools to help cultivate optimism and coaches can be helpful partners in spotting unnecessarily negative thought patterns. And the good news is anyone can put these nurturing practices into play.

Putting it into practice

In my own coaching practice, when I’m helping an individual better approach their emotional landscape and reset pessimism to optimism, I use the following simple technique.

If you find yourself feeling stuck or feeling a sense of despair in response to a situation, consider making a list of your thoughts and feelings.

  1. Review your list to determine which thoughts are assertions and which are assessments.

    Assertions are facts and can be verified by an observer. In contrast, assessments are evaluations, judgments, or opinions. They are an interpretation of the facts.

    This distinction sounds obvious, but I challenge you to start to notice how frequently we mistake assessments for assertions. Noticing the difference can allow us to question our assessments—those that others make and those that we make ourselves—to make sure they are based in reality and to give us the clarity to see other possibilities.

  2. Next, you’ll want to look more closely at your assessments.

    The goal here is to determine to what extent they are grounded?
    Grounding refers to supporting assessments with assertions or in other words, supporting your opinions and interpretations with facts. A great way to do this is by asking yourself follow-on questions to gain better clarity.

    As an example, James shared a few simple questions that he’s been using with working parents, who have started to make negative predictions about failing at both their job and parenting:

    • Has your performance really diminished?
    • Are you a bad parent? Are you failing?
    • What would your colleagues say about your situation?
    • What about your boss? 

    James explains that often the net result of asking questions like these is a realization that one’s perception of events or situations is more influenced by narratives of fear or self-doubt rather than fact, fictions rather than truths.

  3. As you go through this process continue to ask yourself: What else could be happening here? Is my story the only story? What might alternative interpretations be? What might I not be seeing? How might events or experiences from my past be changing the way I see the present?

    More often than not, this kind of inquiry will show you that your perception is being influenced by a narrative of your own making … and a narrative that is, when viewed through a less-than-optimistic lens, isn’t doing you any favors.

    Understanding that negative predictions we have about the future are not facts can be the first step in seeing a more hopeful future. If any of your fears are founded, you can shift into action and focus on finding a solution.

Optimism at your fingertips

The way we explain the events in our lives, our personal storytelling, and thus how we envision the future, has a huge impact on our resilience and wellbeing. BetterUp’s research finds that people who start out low on optimism see a 68% increase in 3-4 months of coaching. James shared with me how rewarding it is to see this kind of growth amidst crisis. “As they start to recognize how they think of their situation and challenge it, they are in more control. They get back some sense of control, despite the chaos. This allows for optimism to bloom.”

But even without a coach, you can start right now. Check out this self-guided resource from BetterUp Studios. When you use the simple coaching technique above, you can begin laying the foundation for more optimism in your life. When you slow down, take a step back, and give yourself the space to sort through facts and feelings, you might be surprised at how your world brightens.

Read Part 1 - Recipe for Resilience,Part 2 - Cognitive Agility, Part 3 - Emotional Regulation, and Part 4 - Self-Compassion from this blog series. 

Next week: What is self-efficacy?