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  • Writer's pictureJess Annison

Half full, or half empty?

Is your glass half full or half empty? Maybe you’re looking for a bigger glass? Or maybe you’re struggling to find a drinking vessel at all.

Optimism can be defined as “expecting good things to happen”. And it plays a key part in our subjective and psychological well-being.

Being optimistic correlates with increased happiness, achievement, resilience and even better physical health outcomes [1]. For this reason, Christopher Peterson described it as a “velcro construct, to which everything sticks” [2]. I love the imagery of that: a big furry piece of optimistic velcro, drawing positive outcomes towards it, and keeping them there for future use and enjoyment.

There are two broad schools of thought within psychology in terms of where optimism comes from.

One view is that optimism is a personality trait (dispositional optimism) [3]. Under this approach, you’re born optimistic or you’re not – and your level of optimism or pessimism stays fairly stable over time.

Alternatively, some see optimism as an explanatory style that can be learned and developed (learned optimism) [4]. By explanatory style, I mean the way in which people explain previous events to create expectations for the future. People who have an optimistic explanatory style tend to see negative events as:

  1. external (caused by others),

  2. transient (temporary), and

  3. local (limited in scale).

In contrast, people with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to see negative events as internal, enduring, and global. I particularly like this model, as it suggests we can change if we want to. And although I’ve always been naturally optimistic (dispositional optimism), I think I also need to keep building my ‘optimistic explanatory’ muscle in parallel, to keep my velcro super-sticky!

I also find the concept of big and little optimism helpful [5]:

  • Big optimism: the broad feeling that things are going well, and that this is a good time to be alive

  • Little optimism: optimism about specific, day-to-day circumstances – e.g. the meeting will go well, I’ll catch the train on time

So, how optimistic are you? There are measurement scales for both dispositional optimism and learned optimism (get in touch if you’re interested and I’ll point you in the right direction).

Of course, optimism can sometimes be seen as naivety, being blinkered, or even denying the challenges and hardship of life. I’m not talking here about unrealistic or relentless optimism, nor wishful thinking. Having spent six years working in the security sector, where risk assessments are core decision-making tools and risk impact is measured in potential fatalities and casualties, we clearly need to be able to assess opportunities and risks proportionately.

I’ve recently learnt about the Stockdale paradox: Admiral James Stockdale was an American prisoner of war in Vietnam. He attributed his survival to the fact that he never lost faith that he would eventually be freed, yet at the same time he was also prepared to face head-on the full reality of what he was experiencing. When asked who didn’t survive, he answered “the optimists… the ones who said we’re going to be out by Christmas” [6].

Winston Churchill (I believe) said: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”. I like this idea, that we use our optimism to see the potential in challenging circumstances, rather than overlooking the challenges entirely, or taking the easy, challenge-free route.

Boosting your optimism

If you’re feeling your glass is a little emptier than you’d like, maybe try these tips:

1) Boost your ‘little optimism’ reserves, through noticing and appreciating the regular small and specific positive experiences that happen (see my previous blog on gratitude for more on this)

2) As and when something bad happens, consider the extent to which it is external, transient and local – to help build your optimistic explanatory style. It may feel like a disaster, but is it really? (And for the parents, managers and leaders reading this – help your children and team-members to do the same)

3) Be mindful about how, when and from where you take your news. We’ve become accustomed to journalism that focuses almost entirely on what’s going wrong in the world (and unfortunately there’s plenty of that). I’m not arguing for full-ostrich head-in-sand, just seeking out supplementary sources of constructive journalism such as The Washington Post’s The Optimist newsletters.

Photo by Manu Schwendener on Unsplash

[1] Want to live longer? Be an optimist, study says - CNN [2] Peterson, 2000. [3] Schier and Carver, 1987. [4] Seligman, 2006. [5] Peterson, 2000. [6] Jim Collins, 2011.

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