Confessions of a Learned Optimist

Confessions of a Learned Optimist

July 23, 2021

I am a learned optimist. Of course, that does not mean I have always been a pessimist. As Singaporeans, we have been brought up to have a healthy skepticism of things, and to critically appraise situations from many angles, and make plans for the future using different scenarios, which would include worst-case ones.

I am grateful to be introduced to Positive Education and to be interacting with advocates of positive psychology and in the process, consciously imbibe the culture of optimism.

In a recent workshop organized by the Centre for Optimism,, Founder and Chief Optimism Officer, Victor Perton pointed out that the difference between pessimists and optimists is “time”. Optimists believe that given time, all things will work out well in the end and that good things will happen.

Science of Optimism

Optimism is associated with a healthier life. The Science of Optimism tells us that healthy longevity is based on genetics, wealth and possibly geography. To quote studies at the American Heart Association, the trait most associated with healthy longevity is optimism.  Pessimism, anxiety and negative emotions adversely affect our organs. Optimists sleep better and conversely, if you sleep longer and better, you will also be more optimistic.

Victor Perton highly recommends a practice called “My Best Self” in his workshop. The method involves a visualization of you in 1-5-10 years hence. We are asked to assume we have accomplished everything we plan to do and spend ten minutes writing about that day in our life. Then spend another five minutes reflecting on that future day. Practising this exercise now and again has proven to boost people’s positive emotions, happiness levels, hope, improve coping skills and elevate positive expectations of the future.

imagine your best possible self by victor perton

Optimism and Leadership

When we surround ourselves with optimistic people, we are likely to also be optimistic. Former CEO of Disney, Bob Iger listed ten principles of leadership in his book, “The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company”. Number 1 on his list is optimism. Iger writes that being and staying positive is one of the most important qualities a leader can have.

“If you walk up and down the hall constantly telling people ‘The sky is falling,’ a sense of doom and gloom will, over time, permeate the company. You can’t communicate pessimism to the people around you. It’s ruinous to morale.”

Optimism, to him,  is about believing in yourself and your employees’ abilities.

The other nine leadership traits highlighted by Iger include courage, focus, decisiveness, curiosity, fairness, thoughtfulness, authenticity, relentless pursuit of perfection and integrity.

Those who aspire towards leadership are reminded that strategy and optimism have to go hand-in-hand, and while we may draw up scenarios that are future-oriented, it will be good to ensure they are positively expressed. Also, we cannot be an innovator unless we are optimisics. Victor Perton reminded us that it was after 15 years and 5,000 prototypes that James Dyson finally perfected his bagless vacuum. Resilience and optimism are intricably linked.

Habits and Practices of Optimists

Some of us are born optimists. The rest of us have to work at it. Here are 12 methods from the list advocated by the Centre of Optimism:

  1. Surround yourself with optimists.
  2. Write, share and display positive affirmations (for yourself and others).
  3. Limit your news intake. Don’t listen to the news till before you go to work.
  4. Smile like an optimist, at people you know and people you don’t.
  5. Laugh like an optimist. Give yourself permission to laugh.
  6. Forgive (yourself and others) like an optimist.
  7. Greet others like an optimist – when asked “How are you?”, don’t just reply with an “ok” or “good”, think of something positive you can share. Say, “I feel good because….(of something I have experienced)
  8. Apart from the “My Best Self” exercise, start a journal on the three best things in your day.
  9. Practise gratitude. Frequently express your gratitude to people via phone, email, message or gifts; record your gratitude on a daily basis.
  10. Go to beautiful places: Get out into Nature and breath in the fresh air and beautiful vistas.
  11. Put things in perspective. This involves conjuring the worst-case scenario, which our minds tend to do first, then moving to the best-case scenario, and finishing with the most likely scenario. The idea is to redirect your thoughts from irrational to rational.
  12. Share stories of hope and optimism that have inspired you.

Grief and Optimism

In life, the realistic optimist knows tragic things can and do happen. Recognising how we respond to events is often the difference between a positive or a negative outcome. We can’t change the fact that a tragedy has taken place, but we have choices about how we respond, of how we can support someone we care for in moving forward after a tragedy.  

For a very comprehensive guide to supporting someone you care about in their time of grief, please read Christy Roberts’ article here:

The key pointers are as follows:

  • Pick up the phone and visit the grieving, don’t rely on just texting and social media.
  • Be curious about how they might be feeling.  A great place to start is to ask - ‘how are you feeling today’? The emotions of grief are like a roller coaster, up and down, and each day can be different. Ask - "How are you really doing?"
  • Always remember that you can't take away their pain, but you can share it and help them feel less alone.
  • Let your genuine concern and care show.
  • Be listen, to run errands, to drive, to cook meals, to help with the arrangements, or whatever else seems needed at the time.
  • Accept their emotions whatever they may be, you are not there to judge. Be sensitive to shifting emotions.
  • Encourage them to find healthy and resourceful ways to feel and express their emotions.
  • Extend invitations to them. But understand if they decline or change their minds at the last minute.
  • Extended grief is normal. If after several months, the person is not making any progress moving forward or they seem to be avoiding their grief or they are not managing their day-to-day tasks, perhaps it's time to suggest seeking professional help. Ask them questions, check in and support them to seek professional guidance. It’s important that whoever they work with understands and has expertise working with grief.
  • Look after yourself, so you can show up fully for them.
  • Above all continue to keep in touch, call and visit.

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