Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Deliberate optimism

The second intentional activity from The How of Happiness is cultivating optimism. Recall from my earlier blog that it’s these intentional activities and habits that can account for as much as 40% of our happiness. The first intentional activity was expressing gratitude.

Optimism does not mean pretending that we live in a perfect world and ignoring or discounting the challenges and troubles we currently face, have faced in the past, and most likely will encounter in the future. Optimism is all about anticipating a positive future in the midst of our current circumstances. To be optimistic means that we expect things to go our way.

“Being optimistic involves a choice about how you see the world. It doesn’t mean denying the negative or avoiding all unfavorable information. It also doesn’t mean constantly trying to control situations what cannot be controlled. Indeed, research shows that optimists are more, not less vigilant of risks and threats (they don’t have their blinders on), and optimists are very much aware that positive outcomes are dependent on their efforts (they don’t wait around for good things to happen).” (p.111)

As I write this, I’m not sure if I will have a job three months from now. The state I live in and work for is experiencing a severe financial crisis and there are massive budget cuts proposed for our university. Yet I remain optimistic, not that the politicians will do the right thing and save the university and my job, but that whatever happens I am going to (eventually) land on my feet. I don’t pretend that my situation will not involve potential hardship and sacrifice, but I have an overwhelming confidence that I will survive this challenge and emerge better prepared to overcome the next one life sends my way.

Optimism is not the same as hope. Hope involves focus on a very specific valued goal and the specific ways and means to achieve that goal, while optimism is broader and involves a more open time frame. Hope is usually described as more affective (how we feel) while optimism is more cognitive (how we think) in nature.

So while I am optimistic that whatever happens with the university budget I am going to land on my feet, I am hoping that I get to keep my job because I like it.

Let’s stay optimistic at work and in life by purposefully reminding ourselves of our strengths and virtues. One way to do that is through an exercise called Reflected Best Self. Find people that know you well and that you trust to give you an honest opinion and ask them how you add value and make a positive contribution at work. Take their feedback and construct a portrait of your best self, a list of your strengths and virtues. Take this written portrait and put it in a place where you will see it every day (e.g. near your home computer, on your bathroom mirror, on the kitchen cabinet).

Now construct some specific goals on how you can leverage your best self to enhance your organization’s purpose. Let’s put the focus on how we can help and encourage others. Write those goals down and once again, put them in a place that you will see them every day. When you accomplish those goals, make new ones.

Expect something positive to happen to you and those around you when you practice these habits.

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