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The Importance of Optimism

I recently watched on live TV the successful landing of Nasa’s Insight probe on Mars. The InSight spacecraft was launched on a rocket from California on 5 May 2018. Moving away from Earth at a speed of 6,200 miles per hour, InSight covered a distance of 33.9 million miles to reach Mars in only 7 months.

When it arrived on Mars’ orbit, the spacecraft hurtled into the thin Martian atmosphere at 12,300 miles per hour then slowed down to just about 5 miles per hour before it hit the surface. It deployed a parachute and fired 12 retro-thrusters to cushion its landing. It used a heat shield for protection as the surrounding air slammed into the spacecraft, heating it up to temperatures of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Nasa calls the entry, descent and landing phase of its Mars missions the ‘seven minutes of terror’.

Over the years there have been thousands of scientists and engineers who have worked on this mission. Some have worked on this mission for decades, with no guarantee that it would succeed. Landing a probe on Mars remains a very tricky business for scientists and engineers: only 40% of missions so far have been successful. It is also an incredibly expensive mission, and if it were to have failed it would be a significant setback for Nasa.

It is safe to say that people who work on the InSight mission need a very special skill set. They need to be confident in their ability, they need to be resilient and actioned-orientated in the face of adversity and are very flexible in their thinking. But, perhaps the most important is optimism. As Anne Kinney, Director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre said,

“If you have a method or idea and you believe it works, you have to be optimistic about it. Optimism is the number-one thing.”

And when you think about it, that makes so much sense. Working on any NASA mission, where there will be so many challenges, failures, disappointment and frustrations, requires staff to be optimistic. Being optimistic means that these individuals think in a more positive and flexible way. This leads them to believe that problems and challenges are solvable so that they are prepared to commit weeks or even years working on them.

Glass half-full or half empty

I am sure that most people, at some point in their lives, have been asked whether they see their life as a proverbial cup which is either half empty or half full. The answer to this question will tell you a lot about your own personality. If you see the cup as half empty, you’re generally considered a pessimist. Viewing the glass as half full, then, makes you an optimist.

Pessimists have a generalised sense of doubt and hesitancy, characterised by the future anticipation of negative outcomes. They expect the worst and overestimate the risks assuming that things will go wrong.

On the other hand, optimists approach problems from a position of empowerment. Some see overcoming adversity as a challenge, one that they will gladly attempt to conquer. Optimistic people they view failure as being temporary and attribute it to the situation or as a matter of circumstance.

There is now growing evidence showing the benefits, both physical and psychological, of being an optimist rather than a pessimist.

Optimists experience less distress than pessimists when dealing with difficulties in their lives. For example, they suffer much less anxiety and depression.

Optimists tend to deal with problems rather than just avoiding them by using acceptance, humour and positive reframing (putting the situation in the best possible light).

Optimists don’t tend to use denial. By not ‘sticking their heads in the sand’ they face up to difficult situations and challenges whilst pessimists often attempt to distance themselves from the problem.

Optimists don’t give up easily even when faced with serious adversity, whereas pessimists are more likely to anticipate disaster and give up as a result.

Optimists have a higher life satisfaction and increased well-being. They are more likely to look after themselves physically and mentally.

However, it is crucial that an optimist has sense of realism and not take on ridiculous risks. Blind optimism can be dangerous. Think some kinds of gambling or ignoring health problems that you might be suffering from.

Thinking positively about pessimism

For many years it was thought optimism or pessimism was hardwired into behaviour and that people had to deal with how they were because there was no way to change it. However, contemporary science says otherwise. The person leading research into what he calls ‘learned optimism’ is Dr Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.

Seligman argues that anyone can make use of learned optimism, regardless of how pessimistic their outlook. To do this Seligman developed a ‘Learned Optimism’ test to identify an individual’s base level of optimism.

The next step is to assess reactions to negative situations. Seligman’s approach for this is known as the ‘ABCDE’ model of learned optimism which stands for Adversity, Belief, Consequence, Dispute and Energisation. Using Seligman’s model could help you to be more optimistic in many situations:

Adversity – Think about a recent problem or difficult challenge you have faced.

Belief Make a note of your thoughts and feelings when thinking about the problem. It is very important to be as honest as you can and not ‘edit’ your feelings.

Consequence Thoughtfully consider the consequences and behaviours that emerged from the thoughts you have noted. Analyse whether these thoughts resulted in positive actions that helped you overcome the problem, or did they keep you from not doing that.

Dispute – Dispute and challenge your beliefs. Think about the thoughts you noted and look for examples from your life that prove those beliefs wrong.

Energisation – Consider how you feel now that you have challenged and disputed your beliefs. Do you feel more energized and motivated? Do you feel that the problem you originally thought was unsolvable is actually solvable? Has it made you more optimistic about challenging your beliefs and changed your thoughts about the original problem?

By using Seligman’s approach people who are more optimistic at the outset can further improve their emotional health, and those who are initially more pessimistic can benefit by lowering their chances of experiencing symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. Evidence from Seligman’s research, and other physiologists who have studied optimism and pessimism demonstrate that this simple but very effective technique can encourage optimisms.

Although it might sound easy on paper, that doesn’t mean you’re going to learn how to be an optimist overnight but remember as Anne Kinney said,

”Optimism is the number-one thing.”

Blog adapted from ‘Positive Thinking – How to Create a world Full of Possibilities’ by Neil Francis