Let’s Talk About… Optimism

By Jeremy Godwin

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.

This is Episode 47 and this week I’m talking about optimism – I’ll be discussing what it is, how it can improve your wellbeing, and how to be more realistically optimistic every day. So, let’s talk about mental health!

This is the first in a series of four episodes about the foundations of good mental health and this week is all about optimism, so let’s get talking!

Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.

Find links to other available podcasting services here.

Very quickly before I begin: this episode goes out on October 5 in Australia and October 7 will be the one-year anniversary of Let’s Talk About Mental Health! I want to say an ENORMOUS thank you to all of you for supporting me and continuing to support me as I grow this program — as at the 1st of October, Let’s Talk About Mental Health now has listeners in 96 countries worldwide and weekly downloads have grown by 68% in the last month alone, which puts this show firmly in the Top 20% of podcasts worldwide and eyeing-off the Top 15%… so I am feeling incredibly grateful! There’s heaps of new stuff coming in the next few months so make sure you sign up to my email list at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/subscribe where you’ll be the first to receive updates — I’m feeling really optimistic about what the next year of Let’s Talk About Mental Health has in store; and speaking of optimism… 

This episode is all about optimism, so let’s get talking!

FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
  • Optimism is defined as “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something”.
  • Life is full of the good, the bad and the ugly, and the challenge for each of us is to learn how to respond to what happens around us (and within us) in a way that keeps us moving forward and growing; that’s where realistic optimism helps to frame things in a more positive-yet-realistic way.
  • Having an overall positive mindset and being able to objectively view setbacks as challenges rather than disasters means that you are better equipped to deal with the challenges of life.
  • Realistic optimism helps to give you the courage to take chances and try new things, and it gives you the courage to face your fears and overcome them.
  • Being realistically optimistic means that you’re able to deal with things even if they don’t work out the way you’d like them to — and that helps you to respond more thoughtfully to events, rather than just reacting to them, which gives you much greater control of how you experience this thing called life.

Introduction

If you’ve turned on the news lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the entire world is a dumpster-fire and that 2020 has been nothing but a smouldering pile of manure (especially since good news stories are few and far between in terms of what the major outlets tend to cover). 

But the truth of the matter is that things aren’t getting worse; they’ve actually been getting considerably better for quite a long time, in spite of all the challenges we’re facing. Yes we’re in the middle of a pandemic and an economic crisis and we’re dealing with the whims of politicians more interested in their own power than anything else, but let’s talk about what has changed for the better: as noted in a 2018 article on Psychology Today (find it at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/finding-meaning-in-imperfect-world/201811/5-ways-in-which-the-world-has-been-dramatically), we’ve seen:

  • A decrease in extreme poverty: from around 36 percent in 1990 to just 10 percent in 2015
  • A rise in gender equality in many countries around the world, not just industrialised nations
  • An enormous increase in literacy levels: in 1960 only 42 percent of people in the world could read and write; today, it’s roughly 83 percent
  • Increased average life expectancy has increased worldwide: across the globe, life expectancy was just 30 years in 1820 and 56 years in 1960; today, it’s around 70 years worldwide  

And on top of those statistics, let’s talk about the elephant in the room that might be of particular interest for any of you who have had to deal with the challenges associated with mental illness: while there’s still work to do to break through stigma, we have come a very long way and treatment is now far more compassionate and (thankfully!) effective than the dark old days when anyone deemed to be something other than ‘normal’ would be thrown into a lunatic asylum to rot away while undergoing treatments that would make the Marquis de Sade look like Mother Teresa.

Here’s my point: the world isn’t such a bad place to live, and in fact it’s pretty good and worthy of being optimistic about! Of course it’s not without its problems and to pretend otherwise would be delusion, but the thing about progress is that it’s often not until afterwards that we’re removed enough from the emotion of it all to see the bigger picture. How you choose to look at things — good, bad or indifferent — is exactly that: a choice, and one that then will influence how you feel, speak and act (which just happen to be the three things in your direct control and the things that will shape the way you experience life). And so that’s where optimism comes in: it helps you to celebrate the good stuff while also looking at the shitty stuff with a solution-focused lens, rather than being bogged down by the weight of it all… but I’ll explain a bit more about that in a minute. First, though…

What is ‘optimism’ and what is ‘realistic optimism’?

Optimism is defined as “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something” (source: Oxford Dictionary). You would have no doubt also heard of its opposite, pessimism, which is “a tendency to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen.” Optimism applies to a lot of different things related to your mindset, such as having belief in yourself and taking a chance on possible success by trying something (compared with pessimism, which is more about giving up and thinking “what’s the point?”) — for example, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t have taken a risk and believed that I could try something new, and that takes a leap of faith and a belief that the future will work out for the best regardless of what happens: win, lose, or draw.

For the purposes of today’s conversation I’m ignoring the philosophical definition, which tends to focus on the notion of good versus evil which to be quite honest is a very black-or-white way to view the world and far too heavy of a conversation to get into here… but interestingly that whole ‘black or white’/‘either/or’ philosophical definition is something to consider, because as with most things in life it’s rarely ever so clear-cut. I won’t bore you with the theory but there’s a whole range of research out there which basically says there is a sliding scale from extreme and unrealistic optimism to extreme and unrealistic pessimism, and in the middle you’ll find ‘realism’ with ‘realistic optimism’ and ‘realistic pessimism’ on either side. Let’s focus on realistic optimism for a little bit; I came across a great definition in an article on PsychCentral which is:

“Realistic optimists are cautiously hopeful of favourable outcomes, but they do as much as they can to obtain the desired results. The unrealistic believe it will all turn out well in the end, and do not do what is required to achieve that. People measured as realistic optimists also tend to have other desirable traits, such as extroversion and cheerfulness. But non-positive thoughts and moods also are important and are certainly not always ‘bad’.”

Jane Collingwood, PsychCentral (source: https://psychcentral.com/lib/realism-and-optimism-do-you-need-both/)

Here’s the thing: ‘realistic optimism’ is about positive belief rather than ‘unrealistic optimism’, which is about delusion. This is the problem with a lot of stuff out there about mindset and mental health, where there’s a big focus on always thinking positively or having ‘good vibes only’ 100% of the time: it’s unrealistic. Life is full of the good, the bad and the ugly, and the challenge for each of us is to learn how to respond to what happens around us (and within us) in a way that keeps us moving forward and growing (I mean, when I die if I discover that the meaning of life isn’t to be a little better every single day then I will be very surprised indeed!). I think we overcomplicate a lot of things in life and it often comes back to this search for meaning and desire for control that underpins the notion of existence for a lot of us, but that’s a philosophical conversation for another day…! 

Let me share a quote by Norman Vincent Peale that I think sums up the whole optimism versus pessimism thing nicely: 

“A positive thinker does not refuse to recognise the negative, [they refuse] to dwell on it. Positive thinking is a form of thought which habitually looks for the best results from the worst conditions. It is possible to look for something to build on; it is possible to expect the best for yourself even though things look bad. And the remarkable fact is that when you seek good, you are very likely to find it.”

Norman Vincent Peale

So with that in mind, let’s talk about why realistic optimism matters for better mental health…

The effects of realistic optimism on mental health

The idea of ‘realistic optimism’ continues on from the different mindset-related topics I talked about over the past few episodes — self-esteem, forgiveness, assertiveness and gratitude — yet it’s a much more fundamental component of good mental health, because it goes to the core of the way you see the world around you as well as how that relates to the world within you. Having an overall positive mindset and being able to objectively view setbacks as challenges rather than disasters means that you are better equipped to deal with the good, the bad and the ugly of life.

According to Verywell Mind (source: https://www.verywellmind.com/the-benefits-of-optimism-3144811), benefits of optimism include:

  • Better physical health 
  • Increased lifespan
  • Greater achievement (e.g. Optimistic sports teams have been demonstrated to perform better than pessimistic ones)
  • Persistence 
  • Emotional health (e.g. Ability to more effectively handle future setbacks)
  • Reduced stress

Let me read this quote from the same article:

“Because [optimists] believe in themselves and their abilities, they expect good things to happen. They see negative events as minor setbacks to be easily overcome and view positive events as evidence of further good things to come. Believing in themselves, they also take more risks and create more positive events in their lives.”

Elizabeth Scott, Verywell Mind (source: https://www.verywellmind.com/the-benefits-of-optimism-3144811)

Optimism helps to give you the courage to take chances and try new things, and it gives you the courage to face your fears and overcome them. I mean, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: starting this podcast was TERRIFYING! The idea of putting myself out there in such a public way (while sharing all this stuff about my personal life as a way of providing examples) was horrifying, and I will be very honest and say that I’ve definitely been tempted more than once to crawl back into the safety of my shell! But I took a risk… and then another… and then another, and now here I am a year later doing what I love doing. Life is about taking sensible risks and pushing yourself forward so that you can grow, and without a positive mindset that can be pretty hard to do!

So I guess that brings us nicely to the ‘how-to’ part of this week’s episode!

How to be more realistically optimistic

So, if I had a dollar for every time I say this in Let’s Talk About Mental Health I would have a lot of money by now — and my regular listeners probably know what’s coming next — having a realistically optimistic mindset starts with choice. Surprise! I mean, at this point I’ve said it so often that I may as well have it tattooed on my forehead, but I stand by the fact I keep on coming back to the notion of choice in basically every episode because the truth of the matter is that how you experience your life is up to you. You have limited control over what happens outside of your own words, actions and feelings (and when I say ‘limited control’, I mean that you can influence some things but the majority of circumstances are completely outside of your control), so you’re then left with two choices: (1) see things as happening to you and react accordingly, or (2) see things as happening around you and that you have the power to consider what you do next, then responding thoughtfully. One helps you to progress and grow as a human being, the other strips your power and keeps you a victim of circumstance. The choice is always yours; I don’t know about you, but I’m putting my money on the one where I get to choose my own adventure (did anyone else used to read those as a kid? I absolutely loved those books! Anyway, back to the topic…!)

The broader point here is about knowing that to practice realistic optimism takes conscious choice and it’s something that requires work daily. It’s no good just saying, “I’m an optimist!” and then letting every bad thing that happens drag you down into the pits of despair (and yes, I know first-hand just how hard it is to fight that when you’re dealing with issues like depression), but this is where the one day at a time thing comes in. Let’s use a current example: COVID-19. The unrealistic pessimist might think that it’s the end of the world, while the realistic pessimist might think that it’s not quite the end of the world but they’re definitely going to end up catching it and becoming very sick. The realist might just throw their hands up in the air and say, “Well it is what it is and I can’t do anything about it, so there’s no point trying not to catch it because I’ll probably just get it anyway.” The realistic optimist might think, “I have choice about where I go, what I do and what precautions I take to minimise my risk and the risk of potentially also transmitting it to my loved ones — like wearing a mask and washing my hands,” while the unrealistic optimist might think, “Well, this just isn’t ever going to affect me!” and then head out and start licking complete strangers on the face because they believe they’re invincible! Seriously though, the difference in all of those examples is conscious choice: you can take all the information out there and combine it with your own perspectives to then make an informed and logical decision which is realistic (i.e. Knowing that you’re not invincible) but also positive (i.e. Having the belief that it’s not the end of the world, because it’s not), and then taking things one day at a time because there’s no constructive point in trying to figure out what tomorrow may hold. That choice sits with you, and it can be a real challenge to override your fears and insecurities (especially when something major like COVID is going on) but it is possible, with time, effort and perseverance. Speaking of…

Reframe setbacks and negative events as challenges. Martin Seligman, considered one of the founders of the field of positive psychology, wrote this in an article in Harvard Business Review;

“…people who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable. ([e.g. Thinking]“…it’s just this one situation, and I can do something about it.”)”

Martin Seligman, Harvard Business Review (source: https://hbr.org/2011/04/building-resilience)

(Note: That article link is in the transcript and it’s about his work with the military on building resilience and optimism; it’s worth a read, especially for anyone in a leadership role who might be thinking about this stuff which can have a hugely-positive effect in the workplace as well… just saying!)

Next, recognise that results won’t just happen without effort. I’m a fan of the whole ‘positive thinking’ movement in the sense that it encourages greater realistic optimism which is good for your mental health, but unfortunately there are some people (who may or may not fall into the ‘unrealistically optimistic’ category) that seem to think that all you have to do is believe and your wildest dreams will come true. That’s lovely, but it’s inaccurate and it sets us up for failure, which can then have a negative effect on our ability to believe in all the possibilities of life. Yes, anything is possible — with time, effort and perseverance. Do you want to lose weight? That is absolutely possible! It just takes work, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Do you want to build a business or share your passion with a wider audience? Well, guess what’s involved? Work! Plus time and perseverance! Look, we’d all love to be able to twitch our noses and make things appear like Samantha from Bewitched (I swear, my pop culture references are getting more and more out of date…!), but life doesn’t work like that and no amount of wishing will make it so! If you want something to happen, it involves equal parts of belief in its possibility and actual effort. The good stuff comes when you have a solid belief in the potential of what you’re doing, as that helps to drive you to do better and be better.

Next, look for solutions instead of focusing on problems. If you focus on the problem, that’s all you’ll see… whereas if you acknowledge the problem and then consider possible solutions, you’re well on your way to overcoming whatever it is. Sometimes that means taking a break and coming back to it, sometimes that means looking at it from a different perspective, sometimes that means getting help, and sometimes that means walking away entirely… but if there’s a problem that can’t be solved, I am yet to come across it.

Next, choose to view negative events as challenges or even opportunities. This is an extension of my last point and I will say upfront that it’s hard. It takes a lot of time/effort/perseverance, so I’m not going to pretend otherwise, but it is possible to choose to see shitty things in a more optimistic way (and therefore believe that things will work out positively). Let me give you a current example in my life. I mentioned recently about my mother’s dementia but what I didn’t share at the time is that she has now been moved into an aged care home and then last week her house was cleared out, so the rental house she has lived in for 42 years — my childhood home — is no longer her home, or mine for that matter. I’ve had a lot of emotions about it all and, look, it could be easy to focus on the loss and all the worries about Mum, but realistically it’s the best thing for all of us in the family. Mum is now actually getting the care she needs (which she’d been refusing for a very long time), her sisters get peace of mind (and in particular one of my aunts gets a massive amount of time back, because she was doing a round trip of roughly four hours from her home to Mum’s several times a week to look after everything), and I have less guilt now about thinking I should be doing more for Mum. So even though this has been rough, it’s also a positive opportunity. My point here is that the choice is always yours: you can choose to focus on the negative, or you can take a step back and look at the possibilities that might come from events, which then helps you to find the strength you need to persevere through the challenging times.

This next point is kind-of related and it’s to separate people from events. Whether this is at home or at work, or in the wider world, we need to be realistic and remember that people are just people, and nobody is perfect. I think that, especially when it comes to our loved ones but also people in high-profile positions of power or influence (such as politicians, celebrities, business-people etc.), there can sometimes be this expectation that they’re perfect or there’s a projection of all these hopes and dreams onto them, and then we’re disappointed when they inevitably turn out not to be perfect after all, because nobody is. I choose to expect the best of people, but I don’t put them on a pedestal and I’m realistic about what I expect because nobody is perfect.

And then to finish up, there were a few points in an article on HuffPost by Mara Karpel, Ph.D., about ‘6 Tips For Becoming A Realistic Optimist’ which I thought were worth sharing here even though it’s a bit longer than what I would normally quote (and I’ll put the link in the transcript). They are (and I’m quoting directly here): 

  1. Combine a positive attitude with an honest evaluation of the challenges you may meet along your path. Along with imagining what it is you would like the outcome to be, imagine the steps you will take to overcome the challenges.
  2. Expect the unexpected and know that you have the inner tools to deal with unexpected challenges.
  3. Don’t obsess about unpleasant events. Dr. Martin Seligman, in his book Learned Optimism, suggests doing something you enjoy to take your mind off of the situation and to get yourself back into a better feeling state. Then come back to the situation with a problem-solving attitude. With this approach, you’ll be more likely to think of better, more creative solutions.
  4. Contribute positively toward someone else’s life. When you get yourself out of yourself enough to help someone else, it begins the flow of positive energy.
  5. Humour is another way of completely changing a negative, pessimistic, view into a more positive view. Humour immediately changes your mood and produces feelings of joy, amusement, hope, and confidence. It helps to provide you with a new perspective about problems and stresses. Have you noticed that if you make light of a situation, that situation loses its power to make you feel threatened? 
  6. Finally, following the basics of self-care [can] have an influence on your attitude when faced with a stressful event. For example, exercise and meditation help to release endorphins, thereby creating a more positive attitude. Eating well and sleeping well are both important for positive mood and effective brain functioning to help you to be a better creative problem-solver rather than a pessimist. 

Source: Mara Karpel, HuffPost https://www.huffpost.com/entry/realistic-optimist_b_8018530 

In point three, the author mentioned the book Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman and if you’re after some further reading on the subject I’d highly recommend that book for a practical guide by one of the leading thinkers in the field of positive psychology, especially if you lean more towards pessimism (and the book actually gives you practical ways you can start to turn pessimism into optimism).

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to optimism and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: realistic optimism helps you to deal with all the challenges we face in life. It allows you to see the possibilities and to have belief in your ability to both shape your destiny and make things better where you can, while also helping you to accept those things that cannot be changed. Life can be a bit of a rollercoaster and it’s inevitable that we’ll face difficulties sometimes, but being realistically optimistic means that you’re able to deal with things even if they don’t work out the way you’d like them to — and that helps you to respond more thoughtfully to events, rather than just reacting to them, which gives you much greater control of how you experience this thing called life. 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:

“A pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity. An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity.”

Unknown

Next week I’ll be talking about control. Continuing October’s theme of foundations of good mental health here on Let’s Talk About Mental Health, in recognition of World Mental Health Day and other initiatives this month, next week I’ll be diving into control which is one of the things I discuss a lot on this show. I’ll be talking about what control is and why we crave it, the impact that effectively managing your need for control can have on your overall wellbeing, and how to manage the need for control on a day-to-day basis in order to improve your mental health. 

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; Sunday evening in the UK, Europe and the Middle East; and Sunday afternoon in the US, Canada and the rest of the Americas. 

You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, and discover additional content on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel (click here) — if you haven’t already subscribed to the YouTube channel please do as there will be a lot of extra content coming to that platform very soon.

If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a five-star review on your preferred podcast platform and tell someone you know about the show (because word of mouth really helps new people to discover the program).

Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About… Optimism

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