"Healthy optimism simply as the belief that the future will be better than the past, and that I have confidence in my ability to influence the process."
~ Bill Crawford

“Healthy optimism simply as the belief that the future will be better than the past, and that I have confidence in my ability to influence the process.”
~ Bill Crawford

Optimism – The Case For & Against

Recently, I was watching a video by Jim Collins (the author of “Good to Great”) who was describing an interview he did with Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest-ranking officer to be held as a prisoner during the Vietnam war. Mr. Collins asked the admiral, “Who had the hardest time dealing with being a POW?,” and the admiral said, “That’s easy, the optimists.” He went on to explain that those POW’s who kept believing that they would be out soon (by Christmas, Easter, the summer, etc.) were continually disappointed, and, as a result, became increasingly depressed.

Interestingly enough, the admiral also went on to say that he personally always believed that he would survive the experience, and that it would become a defining moment in his life… a rather optimistic statement, don’t you think?

The paradox here (which has been dubbed, “The Stockdale Paradox”) is that optimism was described both as a problem, as well as, a solution-focused belief about the future. Admiral Stockdale described it this way: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

This healthy balance of optimism and realism is described by psychologist, Martin Seligman (past president of the American Psychological Association and author of the book, “Learned Optimism”) as “realistic optimism.” He contrasts this with what he calls “Pollyanna optimism,” where individuals simply hope for the best, thinking either that hope is all that they have, or that hope is all that is needed.

I like to describe healthy optimism simply as the belief that the future will be better than the past, and that I have confidence in my ability to influence the process. As you can see, this isn’t a denial of the reality of the moment, however, it is also not using worry or fear as a mindset for happiness or success. Those who are knowledgable about brain science, or follow my “Life from the Top of the Mind” philosophy will know that this optimistic, confident mindset actually comes from a specific part of the brain (the neocortex) and triggers specific chemicals, such as, serotonin and endorphins (chemicals that help us think clearer and feel better).

I believe that accessing this clear, confident, creative part of who we are puts us in the best position to both deal effectively with the realities of the present while, at the same time, holding a vision of the future to which we can look forward.

The challenge, however, is that our brain is not wired for this more optimistic perspective. In fact, for as long as we have been on the planet as a specie, the middle brain, or limbic system has focused more on fear of the negative in order to keep us safe. This was both necessary and effective in the past when we were indeed in danger much of the time, i.e., being eaten by wild animals or thrown out of our tribe to survive on our own. Today, however, much of what we deal with on a daily basis aren’t dangerous situations where we need to react without thinking to survive, but, instead, situations where we need access to our best thinking, interpersonal skills, and problem-solving skills to be safe and successful.

Therefore, I suggest that we begin to practice the more purposeful and “mindful” perspective of realistic optimism. Yes, there are aspects of life today that are negative and should not be ignored… and… our ability to create our experience of life, both now and in the future, will require that we reject the middle brain’s interpretation of life as dangerous and something to be feared or worried about. Instead, I suggest that we look at the reality of our situation today with clear eyes and a clear mind, and choose awareness over worry, love over fear, and optimism over pessimism.

I believe that it is this “Top of the Mind” perspective that will allow us to access our best and deal with the realities of the present in a way that not only creates a positive vision of the future, but also reinforces our belief in our ability to influence the process of bringing this future to life… sounds like something we would recommend to those we love, don’t you think?

~ All the best, Dr. Bill