The Surprising Power of Intelligent Optimism
By Dr Jill Ammon-Wexler
Lately our everyday reality seems to leave little room for optimism. People around the world are suffering from very real natural and personal crises. Our TV's and newspapers are packed with sadness and fear. In times like these it is very important to hold tight to a powerful life success tool - optimism.
So what is optimism? Well first, optimism is not just a Pollyanna "everything is wonderful" attitude. And it goes beyond the concept of "positive thinking." Optimism is actually a refined mental style of how one chooses to respond to life. Webster's Dictionary defines optimism as "an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events, or to anticipate the best possible outcome."
But you might fairly ask how you can be optimistic in the face of today's often overwhelming challenges? Let's face it, life can be very tough at times. But even in the midst of personal turmoil and overwhelming crisis, the same thing holds true: We choose how to interpret what is happening to and around us, and we also choose how we will respond.
Our Greatest Life-Success Power
This ability to choose our mental outlooks and actions is actually the greatest life-success power we humans have. Virtually everything happening to you right now offers this choice. And it doesn't even matter if that thing is "good" or "bad." Even if something undesirable happens, you still have the power to choose how you will interpret and respond to that event.
It's admittedly easy to feel overwhelmed at times, and fall into a habit of making non-optimistic choices. Such an "attitude meltdown" often comes hand-in-hand with chronic or overwhelming stress. But each moment you DO have a choice to either let life wear you down, or to set your mind in a more positive direction.
Mayo Clinic researcher Dr. Toshihiko Maruta reports that optimists have a dramatically higher level of physical and mental functioning than pessimists. "How you perceive what goes on around you and how you interpret it has an impact on your longevity, and also affect the quality of your entire life."
The Optimism–Financial Success Connection
Optimism is also at the very heart of financial health. Why do I say this? Ask almost any self-made millionaire about their path to prosperity and you'll get a similar story: Just like learning any other skill, learning to create lasting financial success is learned. And the learning process is based on trial and error.
Consider the term "trial and error." A "trial" means you're going to try a lot of different approaches to achieving financial success, and "error" means not all of them are going to work. I've personally been there myself. On my personal path to creating financial independence I've tried many different approaches. Some of these trials have been successful, but many have led straight into out-and-out struggles. And have there been errors along the way? Oh yes!
Here's the big lesson I've learned along the way: One of the most important tools in your "financial health tool bag" is the ability to remain optimistic. There are other important tools to be sure ... like passion, drive and focus. But without optimism, you'll never get beyond where you are today.
But optimism isn't about denying reality. And it isn't about being idealiztic, or chasing after some totally unrealistic condition or situation.
Many people seem more adept at practicing dissatisfaction than optimism. They worry about money, complain about their business, and compare themselves poorly to others. And in terms of the physical health of their brains — they are actually building and strengthening the neural networks associated with their problems. But most psychologists agree that the aptitude for optimism is not genetically determined. In other words, anyone can learn to be optimistic. All it requires is a good grasp of reality, along with practice.
In a very interesting cover story, the French magazine Psychologies (January 2005) suggested we focus on "intelligent optimism." According to their insight:
- Intelligent optimists don't deny problems, they adjust to them while still seeking an opportunity for progress.
- Intelligent optimists don't allow themselves to get carried away by circumstances they can't change. They instead focus on things within their grasp, and that they can enjoy.
- Intelligent optimists also know that for every problem there is (at least the beginning of) a solution, and that the search for that solution can be inspirational in itself.
- Intelligent optimists are also not afraid of negative thoughts, which they realize are just internal messages they can choose to either listen to, or reject.
Just Nod "Yes"
How can you develop intelligent optimism? It all starts with a realistic attitude — with facing the reality of your current situation, identifying what you can't change, and going to work on what you CAN change or improve. But here's an interesting tool that can move you along even faster: Learn how to activate key portions of your brain by nodding your head "yes." A recent Ohio State University study proved that nodding or shaking your head serves as "self-validation" that confirms to yourself how you feel about your own thoughts.
The researchers found that nodding your head up and down is, in effect, telling yourself that you have confidence in your own thoughts, And it's important to note that this is true whether those thoughts are positive or negative. Shaking your head does the opposite: it gives you less confidence in your own thoughts.
"One of the most surprising things we found," explained lead researcher Dr Petty, "is that if you're thinking negative thoughts while you're nodding, this actually strengthens your disapproval. What head nodding does in this case is increase your confidence in your negative thoughts. In contrast, when the thoughts were mostly positive, then nodding increases confidence in your positive thoughts."
Try this: As you go about your day today, be aware of how you are responding to what is happening around you. Try making a conscious choice to respond, rather than just automatically react in your customary way. And nod your head to remind yourself that you are holding a positive, "intelligent optimist" attitude.