“You know you are in deep trouble; so you face the brutal facts of the challenge you’re facing. But at the same time you feel deeply that you will prevail.”
This quote comes from James Stockdale, a prisoner of war for over seven years in Vietnam. Stockdale's perspective on acknowledging the reality of your adversity while still holding to the belief that things will work out became known as the Stockdale Paradox, a central takeaway from research done by Dr. Dennis Charney. Dr. Charney studied a variety of people who had survived adversity in its most extreme forms and yet somehow came out of it without the depression, PTSD, and harmful emotional scar tissue one would expect. He compiled a list of characteristics that set these people apart, and the #1 characteristic was a simple yet misunderstood quality - optimism.
To understand optimism, let's begin with what it's not. Optimism is not a naive assumption that everything is always going to be fine - the Pollyanna who views the world constantly through rose-colored glasses and never worries a day in their life.
Optimism is a mindset. It is the stories you tell yourself, and the way you interpret the circumstances and events of your life. And optimism has some eye-opening benefits.
- Optimism is the most powerful predictor of resilience (our ability to recover quickly from adversity)
- Optimism, and the anticipation that comes with it, makes us happy! Think about this - when surveyed about their favorite day of the week, people choose Saturday. But second place goes to Friday (a work day), not Sunday. We love the anticipation of what's to come.
- Positive emotions can undo the effects of negative experiences.
- Optimistic people, while experiencing the same levels of anxiety and frustration when faced with adversity, are able to more quickly let go of negativity, worry less, and shift their attention to what is positive.
- Optimists tend to give more effort over a longer period of time.
If that list doesn't win you over, you may have a dangerously pessimistic mindset - but not to worry, let's finish with some practical takeaways.
Here are 3 ways you can grow your optimism:
- Stop listening to yourself and talk to yourself
Our mindset is determined by the stories we tell ourselves. And all too often, we settle into a bad habit of negative, pessimistic inner dialogue. We develop an expectation for negative things in our lives, maybe without noticing. Stop listening to yourself, and start talking to yourself with intention and purpose. Learn to take the lessons from difficult circumstances and push forward, expecting better things to come. The best is yet to come...
- Interpretation is more important than preparation
This isn't to discount your planning and preparation in life - those things have plenty of value. My point here is, when the inevitable adversity comes (the kind you weren't prepared for), an optimistic person will have a healthier and more beneficial interpretation of what happened and how to move forward. This is what's know as your explanatory style. Adversity will come your way - grow your ability to lean into it, pull out the lessons that will help you grow, and push forward.
- BUT...bring an umbrella
We all have an optimism bias that we must be aware of. There's a fine line between healthy optimism and naiveté (the person who ignores the weather report that calls for a rain storm and ventures out without an umbrella). To paraphrase Stockdale, acknowledge the challenge ahead but believe deeply that you will prevail.
How would you rate yourself when it comes to dealing with adversity? We all have a ton of growing still to do.
But the best is yet to come.