Optimism as a Self-fulfilling Prophecy

Last week I was fortunate to participate in a class called "Optimism at Work" by Dr. Laura Delizonna, a professor at Stanford University and the founder of the Choosing Happiness project. I took plenty of notes but also did some further research for this post.

While there is certainly not a single definition of what optimism actually means, I feel there are many descriptions of what it means to be an optimist. An optimist is someone who generally has a positive outlook on life. He looks over the horizon and senses good things to come. When facing a challenge, the optimist would find the cracks in the wall of the impossible. An optimist has the ability to create a sense of control over the circumstances of the situations he is in. And even in the case of a setback, he would conclude that it's not the end of things. If something didn't go well on one day, he believes that things will be better the next day. To say it in one of my favorite quotes, the optimist believes that:  

Everything will be OK in the end, if it's not OK, it's not the end – Fernando Sabino

"But what about real challenges?" you might wonder... well, optimism is not naivety. Being optimist does not mean you can overlook limitations, but it means you are open to the possibilities and you have the determination to give your best, even if you fail. Something that Laura mentioned in that session was that optimists and pessimists are equally good at facing the problem, however, their response and approach to it differs. It’s the power of perspective. 

Laura started the session with a really nice quote from the movie Apollo 13 movie which was a good example of the power of perspective: 

Director: This could be the worst disaster NASA's ever faced.              
Gene: With all due respect, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.

And while I was learning more and more about optimism, I started to wonder if an optimistic attitude could really influence the outcome. So I dug deeper and came across a phenomenon that is called "the optimism bias", an overly optimistic assessment of our own personal future (there is a good TED talk on this by Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist). A simple example is that you are getting married and you know that ≈40% of marriages end up in divorce, that's 2 out of 5. But if someone asked you on the day of your wedding, you would estimate your own likelihood of divorce at 0%. Alternatively, if you ask a group of people to assess how interesting, honest or modest they are, almost all would rate themselves above the average ... something that is statistically impossible, because we can't all be better than everyone else. However, if we believe we are better than the person next to us, then this means that we are probably gonna end up putting in the extra effort that will make us more likely to get that promotion, remain married, etc.

To link it back, the optimist expects more good things to happen to him. All that anticipation influences his attitude towards the challenges he will come across and enhance his wellbeing. As a result, optimism changes subjective reality. The way we expect the world to be, changes the way we see it. It acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the end, optimism is not only related to success, it leads to success.