Posts Tagged ‘Realistic Optimism’

On a positive note

Article contributed by Amy Sargent.

Times such as these can feel overwhelming, far too trying and tiresome to attempt to maintain a positive outlook. With ever-changing restrictions, guidelines, and perspectives which continue to constrict their grip on life as we once knew it, many report feeling utterly exhausted. Mix in fear, uncertainty, and grief, and it’s a recipe for negativity. Add in a little financial struggle and a heaping lack of in-real-time social interaction, you may find yourself completely spent at the end of each day. Who can muster up the effort for a positive mindset with all of this going on? Choosing optimism can feel like just one more thing on your to-do list. It’s much easier to allow dejection and depression to curl their dark tendrils around what’s left of the light inside of you and choke out any positivity you have left.

But realistic optimism during tough circumstances is the very salve needed to soothe our wearied souls.

What does it mean to be realistically optimistic? To better understand, let’s take a quick exploration into the field of positive psychology. Jeana Magyar-Moe, Ph.D., defines positive psychology as the scientific study of optimal human functioning. Optimal human functioning. Let those words sink in. Would you describe your life right now as optimal human functioning? Most likely not! Martin Seligman, Ph.D., defines it as the scientific and applied approach to uncovering people’s strengths and promoting their positive functioning. Do you feel your strengths these days are being revealed in a way which promote positive functioning? If you’re anything like me, quarantines and stay-at-home orders have instead revealed how weak my character is when it comes to things like eating well and exercising. Oh, why is that fridge door so easy to open, and why is Netflix is so much easier to choose than a yoga workout? Similarily, Chris Peterson, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan, says positive psychology is the scientific study of what goes right in life, happiness and joy, what makes life worth living, and the good life. Nice. For him. All it takes is one glance on social media to see most everyone around us telling us what is NOT going right in their lives.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not seeing a lot of people who are living out positive psychology these days.

Whichever definition you most connect to, there’s no need to argue which is best. We have plenty of other newsworthy items to argue about. I think we can all agree that an increase of positive emotions is something we all could use more of. But how to find that in a world swarmed with negativity?

Realistic optimism is not about pretending nothing bad is going on. It’s not hiding our heads in the sand, or looking the other way when negative events occur. Life is tough right now, no need to pretend that it’s not. But would you believe that a positive spirit is not so much about what’s going on around us?

Researchers have found that our circumstances only make up 10% of our happiness levels! I find that shocking. What do you mean, my ability to experience positive emotions is not based upon what is or is not happening to me? Oddly, studies show that 85% of the stuff we worry about ends up having a positive or neutral outcome? Think back on the last thing you were really worried about — did it actually come to pass to the degree you expected?

And while 50% of our happiness results from our genetics, the remaining 40% is up to us, through our choices and actions!

You’ve probably heard of emotional intelligence — that ability to perceive the emotions you an others are feeling, in the moment, and manage your behaviors and relationships appropriately. The competencies which make up emotional intelligence are really about behaviors — behaviors based upon the emotions we feel. Two of these competencies, realistic optimism and resilience, are closely connected to positive psychology. Realistic optimism is expecting success instead of failure, seeing opportunities instead of threats, expecting the future will bring positive change. Resilience is perseverance and diligence in the face of setbacks. I sure like the sound of each of those. But easier said than done.

Why have a positive outlook? Through her work around the science of positivity, researcher and author Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues discovered that positive emotions have superpowers. They can broaden our awareness, attention and cognitive abilities. They can build our creativity and resiliency. They allows us to see a wider range of possibilities, unlike negativity, which tamps down our innovative ideas. Positivity helps us be more socially connected and build stronger relationships, and has actually been proven to undo the psysiological damage that persistent negative emotions can cause. [].

And all of that can happen despite the negative circumstances which surround us!

I know, it’s hard. Honestly, I think it’s easier to allow negativity to take rein, allowing our emotions to run amok, without any awareness or management. Think back on a time when someone recently made you very mad. Remember the physical symptoms you felt? Maybe your heart was racing, your mouth became dry, and you felt a sick pit in your stomach. Maybe your face flushed, your jaw clenched, and you found your hands became fists. And the thoughts which result from that hard-hit of negative emotions! It’s probably not a good idea to mention them here.

These emotions which lead to thoughts are what lead to our actions. Actions which, often, later, when we lie down in bed and think back on our day, make us cringe. It’s much easier to let negativity rule than take hold and choose positivity. Consider this, for example. When you read a post on social media that makes your blood boil — which is easier, in the moment: to type something smart aleck or cutting, or to choose to tell them something you appreciate about them?! Negativity is a much easier choice. However, if we continue to let negative emotions take the lead, we’ll quickly and easily end up in Debby Downer’s neighborhood. But who wants to live there?

How do you know if you could grow in realistic optimism? See if any of these ring true for you. People who struggle with an positive outlook tend to see failure as permanent and that difficulties, when they arise, will last a long time. They demonstrate inflexible thinking, and, as a result, can feel powerless and helpless. They expect the worst and often dwell in the past, engaging in negative self-talk. They operate from a fixed mindset and often believe that every misfortune is their own fault and attribute their success to luck rather than their own capabilities. They blame their circumstances for their misfortune and love to tell you about everything that has gone wrong over the days, months, and years. Does this sound like you?

On the other hand, those who possess a positive spirit see unfortunate events as temporary, and use each struggle to develop better coping skills. Their self-talk speaks to them of success because they believe they will succeed. These individuals operate from a growth mindset, believing negative events are temporary and happen to everyone. They are unfazed by defeat and bounce back after disappointments. They’re flexible, adaptable, and look for ways to allow failures to teach them resiliency. Do you know anyone like this?

Carol Dweck speaks of these two mindsets in her book, Mindset (2015). She describes a fixed mindset as one which assumes our character and intelligence are static, and our success is based upon of inherent intelligence, one that’s set at a fixed standard. In other words, there’s no room to improve or grow. Those with this mindset avoid failure at all cost to maintain their sense of worth. In contrast, Dweck notes that a growth mindset “thrives on challenges and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence, but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.” Do you see the difference?

She also goes on to say, “Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.” [Mindset, 2015]

In other words, most of the goals we think will make us happy, often don’t. In contrast, it’s our mindset which determines our level of happiness.

The beautiful thing about a positive spirit is that it can be developed, no matter how negative you’re feeling today, and no matter the ugly circumstances swirling around you. A model to follow is PERMA, developed by psychologist, educator, and author Martin Seligman. Each letter of PERMA represents things we need in our lives to experience more positive emotions. Seligman coined the phrase, “Learned Optimism”, because a positive outlook for many of us does not come naturally. We have to choose PERMA, to learn it, and not wait for it to just happen by some act of fate.

Which one of these could you use more of?

Positive Emotion. In order to have a positive outlook, we need to feel positive emotions. Experiencing emotions like joy, hope, contentment, excitement, and giddiness, on a regular basis, can increase our levels of positivity immensely. Take note of the emotions you feel most strongly each day. If the negatives outweigh the positives, take some time to do the things which create positive emotions for you.

Engagement. Do you absorb yourself in your activities fully or are you a multi-tasker? If the latter, your ability to engage may be limited. Research shows that it really is difficult to multi-task — though you may be doing two things at once, one of them is getting more focus and attention which means the other is put on the back burner. Learning to focus on one thing at a time and relish the experience with all of your senses — engaging — is vital to building positivity.

Relationships. Experiencing deep, meaningful relationships, and taking the time to connect with those we care about, is probably the foremost way to build positivity. Make a list of those you love being around, and note why. Figure out ways to reach out and connect with them on a regular basis. Need more friends? Seek out ways to make new connections and build relationships, whether it’s joining a social group or expanding your friendship circles to include new faces.

Meaning. What is your life purpose, and how does that show up in your day-to-day activities? Can you connect that purpose to the work you do? Does it show up in your personal relationships? Knowing why you do the things you do and aligning them with your values can add meaning to everything you do. Try writing down your values, the things which are most important to you, and see what shifts you need to make to better align your life with those values. Seek the help of a coach or counselor if needed.

Accomplishment. If you’re a to do list-maker, you know how good it feels to check off a box when you complete a task. Accomplishments, both great and small, make us feel good. And they increase our motivation to continue to be successful. Looking back on past accomplishments can spur us toward greater goals. Try it. What did you accomplish today? Write them down, and circle the items you are most proud of. Share an accomplishment with a friend. Celebrate your wins. Try this for a week, or a month, and watch your positivity grow.

From a 20,000 feet view, here are a few ways to cultivate PERMA:

Challenge your negative thoughts about past events and why they happened.
-View negative experiences as neither personal nor permanent (“this too shall pass”)
-Consider the worst-case scenario and come up with actionable strategies to avoid it
-Remember bad things happen to everyone (the grass isn’t always greener)

And on a more down-to-earth level, here are some practices to incorporate PERMA into your day, week, month, and year, proven to increase your positive emotions:

Connect with friends/family/new people

Change your setting

Get outside and spend time in nature

–Find something that makes you laugh — and laugh!

Exercise (aerobic and cardio work best)

Do something kind for someone else– giving back, community engagement, volunteering, etc.

Activate your curiosity and learn something new

–Begin a gratitude jar/journal/letter

Reflect on a past achievements and celebrate them

Set a new goal and jot down how you’ll get there

Count your blessings and small kindnesses which happen every day

Savor moments, big and small

–Find flow (get lost doing something you love)

By choosing just one of these to start doing each day, with repeated practice, you will increase your positive emotions. Don’t believe me? Give it a try and find out. It can’t hurt to try. Your weary soul deserves a little positivity. And what an amazing example you could set for others who think they have to sink into the downward spiral of negativity. Who knows, your positive emotions may inspire them to do the same.

You and this world need your positivity.

How to live a beautiful life

Article contributed by Amy Sargent
Someone told me yesterday that my world sounds so easy, so fun. She even went on to say she wished she had my life.  I took it as a compliment–as it was–but I had to laugh. My life, really? If she only knew…!
Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” — Abraham Lincoln
It’s all about perspective. I don’t lead any more of a charmed life than the next (nor am I any worse for the wear than the next).  I am simply learning the art of reframing. Like when we snap a photo of a beautiful nature scene, and notice it’s not centered, or an unwanted object is marring the setting, we open our photo editing software and crop to get a new perspective. In reality, the undesirables are still there but we’ve reframed it, so our focus is on the beauty instead of the blemishes.
We must do the same to live a beautiful life.
This month I’ll admit I’ve experienced an enviable lifestyle. I have drunk in the scandalous scent of lavender and lilacs, watched the orange-pink sun rise in the morning’s first light, and squinted in the glimmer of sun rays dancing on a shimmering lake. I have heard the sweet harmonies of my daughter’s voices and watched their speedy legs run across the finish line to victory. I’ve spent enjoyable evenings with dear, sweet elderly women and laughed at their stories of days gone by. I’ve relaxed by the turquoise pool at my cozy apartment, baked warm, fresh homemade bread and enjoyed drinks on a patio with a dear friend. I’ve spent quiet, peaceful alone time on a long morning run contemplating life and the exciting options spread before me. I received a surprise refund from my cable company. On Mother’s Day, I hiked along a sparkling stream with my girls and saw two magnificent moose in the wilderness of a national park. Yes, it’s been a month to be coveted.
Yet in this very same month, I inhaled a lot of second-hand pot smoke (not my favorite thing in the world), which wafts up from our inconsiderate neighbors below. I could only get a glimpse of the sunrise for the tall concrete buildings that block my morning view, and watched discarded Styrofoam cups floating on the surface of a dirty lake. I heard my daughters declare they felt ugly and watched them cry with disappointment after not performing as well as they’d hoped in their races. I’ve spent exhausting evenings with frail, old ladies who admitted they are ready to die. I lived in a cramped apartment with an overcrowded pool full of screaming kids and slept in a too-small twin bed that made my back ache. I baked my own bread in attempt to save money because I was worried about bills. I felt lonely, doubted my purpose in life, and felt fat while attempting a slow morning run. I got a notice that I owed more than I thought on a credit card bill.  On Mother’s Day I spent the entire morning alone while my girls took their stepmother out to brunch.
Same month. Same events. Two perspectives.
If we only tune in to the ugly parts of our lives, which we all experience from time to time, what an ugly life we’ll lead!
Realistic optimism is a competency of emotional intelligence and something we can all learn. It isn’t about pretending tough times don’t exist or being a naive Pollyanna; it’s learning to hone in on the positive and not on the parts of life that drag us down.  It’s easier to do the latter, trust me, as I’ve spent hours, days, and weeks over the years wallowing in my miseries. The difficulty of our struggles can feel so heavy that they diminish our ability to see clearly. But no matter how dark it may look, remember that right alongside those woes is a world of wonder. To ‘see’ requires a shift of focus.
I have friends whose daughter is in a battle for her life, and in each moment they don’t know if she is going to make it. I have another friend who has lost use of her legs, racked with pain, and can’t get outside to see the pink blossoms on the springtime trees. Yet all three of these saints somehow remain positive and joyful. Their noble, hope-infused mindset inspires me beyond words.
“Life is like a sandwich! Birth as one slice, and death as the other. What you put in between the slices is up to you. Is your sandwich tasty or sour?” — Allan Rufus
As you tumble out of bed on this fresh, new morning, and begin to go about your day, get out your editing software! Refuse to let the negatives define your day or even worse, your life. Of course your trials are heavy and difficult. I know. But beauty and blessings are right there too, light and lovely, awaiting your discovery. Now is as good as time as any to begin to learn how to reframe so you can get busy living a beautiful life.

Pass the honey, honey


Article contributed by Amy Sargent

I’ve been thinking a lot on perspective, maintaining a positive mindset, and being thankful lately– and thanks to a friend’s thought-provoking blog this morning on the art of remembering–realize that a key to staying positive is reminding ourselves of the good in our lives, in the midst of rough times. It’s not easy to do. We all have our stressors that cause us to lose perspective. What are yours? Mine are finances — when those are on shaky ground, I quickly and easily forget all the good things going on in my world. For some of us it is health, or parenting struggles, or being single, or ____ (fill in the blank). It’s not that these issues aren’t real, tough, and painful, because they are, but should they trump all other good things in our life?

And our addiction to social media doesn’t help.  It’s easy if we’re not careful to come down with the Grass Is Greener Syndrome, a life-sucking disease that causes anger, victimization, jealousy, and depression.

Sometimes we need a little help with our realistic optimism, a competency of emotional intelligence. I know I forget far too easily and quickly all the good things going on in my life when a crisis arises, and the encouraging words of a friend (or stranger even) are all it takes to help me find perspective again. When we get blinded by stress and struggles, often those around us can still see clearly, better than we can ourselves.

That being said, I want to encourage you to take a moment today and share with someone one positive thing you like or appreciate about their life on their FB wall, LinkedIn profile, in a text, or a phone call — or imagine this — face to face. You may think, “Ah, they already know that” — but you never know if this is a day they need a little encouragement, or, they may just not see what you see.

Keeping a positive perspective is a key to life satisfaction and your words may be just the sugar someone needs today. There is so much truth in this proverb: “Kind words are like honey–sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.” And I think that applies both to the receiver and the giver of kind words.

“When you encourage others, you in the process are encouraged because you’re making a commitment and difference in that person’s life. Encouragement really does make a difference.” –Zig Ziglar

So spread a little honey today! You words may turn around someone’s world today, and you may be surprised at another’s positive perspective on your own life.

Optimism: The Power of Negative Thinking

(This is the second in a series of blogs on Using Positive Psychology in Coaching Social + Emotional Intelligence)

screaming womanThe Power of Negative Thinking?  What’s up?

Consider this scenario.  You’re coaching one of your favorite clients.  They have something really big they want to achieve and you are supporting them.  You’re pulling out all the stops.  You have them picture what their life will be like once they achieve their goals.  You ask them to visualize every detail.  Where are they sitting?  Who is with them?  What’s around them?  Are their toes in the warm sand?  Are their fingers wrapped around the leather steering wheel in that hot new car?  Can they just hear the applause and see the standing ovation after that big speech?  You ask them to imagine what it will feel like once they’ve accomplished this big goal – actually, even more than imagine what it will feel like, you ask them to try to really experience the feeling of it.   What are those feelings?  Will they feel proud?  Confident?  Elated?  Exhilarated?

Good emotional intelligence coaching, right?  You have them visualizing and actually feeling the emotional tug of accomplishing the big goal.   This positive imagery and the associated positive feelings will really help them feel motivated and inspired, right?

Well . . .   not so fast.  According to research conducted by Gabriele Oettingen at New York University, visualizing and even feeling what it will be like to achieve our big goals and dreams in life can actually backfire.


Well, the visualization and emotional pull can help at first, but over the long run, it can trick the mind into relaxing, as if all the hard work has already been done, and the emotional energy we stir up initially around achieving the goal can actually trickle away.  People can actually become complacent.

In one of Dr. Oettinger’s studies, students enrolled in a computer-programming knew they had to excel in mathematics in order to succeed in the program.  All the students had high hopes and a great determination to excel in math.

The students in the program were separated into three groups.   In the first group (the “indulging group”), the students were asked to name (and write down) four positive aspects associated with excelling in mathematics (e.g., feeling proud, getting a better, higher-paying job, getting more job offers to choose from, etc.).

In the second group, (the “mental contrasting group” – see below), the students were asked to name two positive aspects of excelling in math, and two obstacles to reaching their goal in alternating order (e.g., I’ll get a better,  higher-paying job, but I might get lazy and not do the work.  But I’ll get lots more job offers, but then again, I might get distracted).

The third group (the “dwelling group”) was asked to think through and write down four negative aspects of not excelling in math.  (e.g., I’m not smart enough, I don’t have the time to study, etc.)  Ugh.

The teachers in the program tracked the students’ performance for two weeks following this exercise and “graded” the students on how much effort each student had invested over the ensuing two weeks in excelling at mathematics.

Only in the second group, the “mental contrasting” group, where the students considered both the positive AND the negative aspects of achieving their goals, did the students earn the grades needed to achieve the goal of excelling in math.  Not only did they get the grades, they exerted the effort needed, and they also felt far more energized toward the goal compared with the students in the other two groups.

The students in the first group, the “indulging group” who were asked to imagine only the good aspects of success felt only moderately energized, demonstrated only moderate effort, and earned only moderate grades, despite their high expectations for success.  Same for the students in the third group, the “dwelling group” who were asked to think only of the negative.  They too felt only moderately energized, showed only moderate effort and earned only moderate grades.  Students in the first group actually felt de-energized after visualizing their success would come so easily.   Many became complacent.   And those poor students in the third group never felt energized from the start.

Many other studies confirm these findings, including studies on learning a second language, finding work/life balance, smoking cessation, and various other goals related to self-improvement.

Those who simply fantasize about their goals actually feel less energetic about them and end up achieving fewer goals.   One study of mid-level managers at four hospitals in Germany was particularly interesting.  One group of managers was trained in the mental contrasting technique (explained below) and one group was not.  Two weeks after the training, those who had been through the training achieved far more of their short-term goals than their colleagues who did not attend the training.  They also found it easier to make decisions about how to use their time – another benefit of mental contrasting:  by thinking realistically about the obstacles to success, we pick goals we are actually likely to achieve and avoid wasting time on projects that will not get us to our goals.

So what is this Self-Regulation Strategy of Mental Contrasting?

Mental contrasting requires two steps involving both “positive” and “negative” thinking and emotion.  We want to ask our clients (or ourselves) to:

1)     Imagine the attainment of the desired future or goal (“positive thinking”) in vivid detail, and then

2)     Reflect on current reality and the obstacles which may stand in the way (the aforementioned “power of negative thinking”)

This process helps people be realistic in determining whether they can achieve a goal or a desired future state, and whether they can make the commitment to do so.

When the feasibility or expectation of success is high, people commit strongly to attaining the goal; when feasibility is low, they are far less likely to form a commitment to a goal (their goal commitment is weak or simply non-existent).

Mental contrasting is therefore a useful tool in helping clients with realistic optimism, selecting goals that are attainable.   In the process, they reserve their energy and personal resources (time and money) for the goals they can achieve.

An additional benefit of mental contrasting is that it requires individuals to think of the obstacles (or the negative aspects) that could get in the way of goal attainment so they can plan in advance how they can remove those obstacles.

In sum, it helps to have an end goal in mind, and a clear vision or picture of what that goal will be.  Vision, purpose and direction are vital to our success.   They get us to our goals.  But we also need to engage in “mental contrasting” – realistically thinking of the negative and the obstacles that could get in the way so we can plan for them.  We need to think about where we want to be, and realistically where we are now.  Interestingly, this process ends up actually energizing us more toward goal attainment than simply fantasizing and solely engaging in positive thinking.

Optimism is more than hope and positive thinking.  I don’t wish to diminish hope.  Hope is important.  Without hope we have nothing.  But optimism is more than hope.  Optimism is about being realistic about the work involved, and about taking action, and about overcoming obstacles.  Optimism involves considering the negative as well as the positive.

So, give this mental contrasting technique a try for yourself.  Think about something big you would like to achieve and write down at least three benefits of success.  Then reflect on and write down at least three things that could get in the way.  Going through this process helps us direct our motivation and energy where it’s needed most, and also helps us determine whether a particular goal is truly feasible or simply not in the cards.

What are your thoughts?  Have you tried reaching a goal simply by visualizing success while not considering potential roadblocks?  Did it work for you?  Were you successful?  Have you ever tried mental contrasting?  How did that work?

Our new course, Using Positive Psychology in Coaching Social + Emotional Intelligence starts this Thursday, March 7.  Positive Psychology is first and foremost a science.  While it’s “nice” to believe in the power of positive thinking, the science indicates more is needed.  Mental contrasting is just one of over a dozen evidence-based Positive Psychology techniques we will be reviewing to support our practice of Coaching Social + Emotional Intelligence. Come join us this Thursday to learn more!  Register here

Having It All vs. Having Enough

Article Contributed by Guest Author Hope Eaton

For years Kyle was dedicated to a career he loved, and was almost happy with his work/life imbalance.  That is, until he had a family.  Once this happened, it was no longer okay to work 16 hour days.  There were other things that were important to Kyle, and he wanted to do everything as perfectly as he did his job.  He wanted it all, and why not, everyone else seemed to be doing it.

And yet, Kyle began to experience a great deal of frustration because he wanted to spend more time with his wife, his kids and his friends.  He wanted to keep up his exercise program, and he also wanted to keep doing the work he loved.

However, when he was at work, he did not feel fully engaged because he was thinking about the T-ball game his son was playing that he was missing; and when he was with his family, he was stressed and frustrated about the presentation he was not getting done.   When he was out with friends, he did not fully enjoy their company because he was thinking about the laps he should be swimming.

Kyle finally got to the point where he was not fully enjoying anything.   Everything he read about work-life balance, about being more productive and how to squeeze more in his days was not helping him, and his stress levels rose.

This is when he reached out for coaching.  We worked together to design his life through the lens of the emotional intelligence competency of realistic optimism rather than the “I can have it all” perfectionism he had been pursuing.  Starting with this optimal life exercise from Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, Kyle:

1. Identified the most important domains in his life.  For him these were:

  • Professional / career
  • Parenting / family
  • Romantic / spouse
  • Personal health / exercise
  • Economic / financial security

2. Created a two-column chart of what each of these domains would look like in a “perfect” world and what they would look like if they were “good enough.”

Domain Perfect Good Enough
Professional 8 hours of solid work per day 3 hours of “real” work per day with no interruptions
Parenting Spend all weekend with the kids as well as all mornings and evenings Have dinner and/or breakfast with his family 4 times/week
Romantic A date night 3 times per week A date night 1 night every two weeks
Personal Health 2 hours of exercise per day and 30 minutes of meditation 2 times per day 1 hour of exercise a day  (with weekends off) and two 10-minute meditations daily
Economic Tuition pre-paid for all 3 children by the time they are 3, $500,000 in savings by 40. Open a 529 and put away what they can and contribute to 401K up to employer match

Kyle identified the best possible scenarios for each domain given the realities of his life.  He accepted that he, like most of us, cannot have it all and that life is not “perfect.”  As a result, he is now fully engaged in each major domain of his life, and he is happier and less stressed.  Life is good !

How have you helped your clients work realistic optimism into their lives?