How you think has a direct impact on how you perform, especially when you’re facing adversity. Optimistic thinking can positively impact your performance, well-being, readiness, and resilience. Optimism is often misunderstood as only focusing on the positives and ignoring the reality of the situation. In fact, optimistic thinking helps you to recognize what’s truly happening, maintain a fighting spirit to persevere, and find a way to turn an obstacle into an advantage.
Misconceptions about optimism
Positive thinking is more than the common perception of seeing the glass is half full. The main concern of optimistic thinkers isn’t whether the glass is half full or half empty. Instead, they focus their energy where they have control to make a situation better. If the liquid in the glass is poison, optimistic thinkers don’t just look at the bright side and say, “Well, at least it’s only half filled with poison,” and drink it up! Instead, they recognize what’s going wrong, focus their energy on how to remove the poison, and then fill the glass with something good. And even if the glass is half filled with good stuff, optimistic thinkers focus on where they have control to make the situation better: to get more good stuff in the glass! Only when they’re certain further action wouldn’t help the situation, optimistic thinkers accept things, see the glass as half full, and direct their energy to other places where it can be productive.
The main concern of optimistic thinkers isn’t whether the glass is half full or half empty. Instead, they focus their energy where they have control to make a situation better.
Advantages of optimistic thinking
Optimists experience a whole host of beneficial outcomes compared to pessimistic thinkers.
- Better at handling stress, overcoming setbacks, performing under pressure, and taking advantage of opportunities
- Greater social support and joy in their relationships, and they’re seen as better leaders
- Tend to live longer, experience lower risk of heart disease, and have better recovery after surgery
- Improved quality of life and fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Better performance in sports, work, and school
- Greater job satisfaction and longer job retention
Optimistic or pessimistic thinking can shift based on the situation, your mood, or the other people involved. Use this self-check reflection to be more aware of how you approach a current adversity.
After each question, think about how a pessimist might respond vs. an optimist . Which answers hit closer to home in this moment? Keep in mind this isn’t an assessment but an opportunity to help you reflect on your approach to this adversity, evaluate if it’s more aligned with optimistic thinking or pessimistic thinking, and decide where you might want to change course of action.
What are your thoughts?
My thoughts are consumed with past negative events or potential worst-case outcomes.
My thoughts are focused on where I have control in this situation and how I can take action to improve things.
What are you saying to others?
The majority of my conversations involve complaining about things outside of my control.
Most of my conversations are focused on problem-solving and finding potential opportunities.
How are you spending your time?
I’m avoiding this struggle by procrastinating or distracting myself with unproductive behaviors (for example, social media, drinking, shopping, etc.).
I’m taking on this struggle by developing a plan of attack.
How are you persisting through this struggle?
If it gets hard, I’ll likely give up.
I’m willing to push through adversity to find a way to grow.
How are you approaching others during this struggle?
I’m isolating myself from others and/or unintentionally lashing out.
I’m reaching out to others who can help and support me.
How do you see yourself in this struggle?
I’m a victim who lacks the ability to overcome an overpowering threat.
I’m a warrior with the strengths needed to overcome a tough challenge.
How are your emotions impacting your ability to navigate this struggle?
I’m overwhelmed with negative feelings that are blocking productive action.
I’m finding ways to generate moments of curiosity, gratitude, peace, or humor despite my struggle to stay energized.
How’s this struggle affecting the rest of your life (for example, other relationships, work, hobbies, sleep, diet, etc.)?
This struggle is negatively impacting many parts of my life.
I’m finding ways to excel and find joy in other aspects of my life.
Where are you focusing your attention?
My focus is on the constraints that are limiting me in this struggle.
My focus is on those resources that can help me.
How is this struggle impacting your view of the future?
I have little hope the future will be better.
I’m hopeful and excited for the future.
5 ways to build an optimistic mindset
You can build optimism by tuning into your thoughts, reengaging your focus, and asking strategic questions. Ask yourself the following questions when you’re starting your day, facing adversity, or stuck in a rut to help power your performance.
Where do I have control to make things better?
If you can’t see where you have control, then it makes sense to give up. The problem is that a pessimistic mindset can cause you to never notice critical factors where you do have control and can create change. When you’re stuck in a tough situation, one of the most productive ways to get started is to list the factors you have some control over to help make positive change. It’s also important to think of factors where you might not have complete control but you do have some level of influence. For example, simple things such as a conversation or an email to influence others in the situation can bring major rewards. Even when things are going well, optimists often ask themselves if there’s a better way to do things, rather than accept the status quo.
Bonus tip: If you’re having trouble, ask a friend, family member, or battle buddy to help you identify where you have some level of control or influence. Your beliefs or thinking patterns might also be blocking your ability to see where you have control. Read HPRC’s take on how performance-based beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies and learn how to avoid “always” and “everything” traps to help you challenge counterproductive beliefs and thinking patterns to see things more accurately.
What must I accept?
Unfortunately, there are often things you have no control or influence over. Sometimes bad decisions are made, deadlines get moved, people make mistakes, and you have no ability to change them. Pessimists tend to spend their time and energy focusing on and complaining about things they can’t control. Optimistic thinkers know it’s a waste of time and energy to focus on such things. Instead, they recognize and accept what they can’t control, so they can take action where they can make an impact. Also, when you have to accept that you can’t make a current situation better, you can still learn and grow from it. Acceptance isn’t giving up, but rather refocusing your energy on where you can be most productive.
Bonus tip: Sometimes acceptance is easier said than done. Even when you want to move on, it’s easy to keep looking back on things you can’t control. Often when you can’t let something go, it’s because there’s a core value or belief in play that might be outside of your awareness. Read HPRC’s “Grab control over your feelings” to help you gain clarity and practice acceptance.
How can I take productive action now?
If you always wait to begin, you’ll never get started! Optimistic thinkers know they need to take purposeful action to create the good outcomes they want in life. Pessimistic thinkers instead tend to complain and/or avoid the situation through social media, binge-watching, drinking, shopping, etc. Optimistic thinkers recognize the importance of beginning today rather than waiting until tomorrow. So, after you separate the things you can control or influence from those you need to accept, it’s time to list a few ways you can take action to address things you have some control over. Also, try to reflect on those people and resources you have to help you take productive action.
Bonus tip: Start with the things you can do in the next 24 hours. Next, list things you can act on later, including when you plan to do them. Read HPRC’s “WOOP: 4 simple steps to help you achieve your goals” to get motivated and take action now.
How can I keep one issue from affecting other parts of my life?
You have various roles, relationships, responsibilities, hobbies, and performances. When you experience heartbreak, failure, or frustration in one area, it often tends to bleed into other parts of your life and affect your overall performance. Optimistic thinkers are deliberate in not letting one bad situation pollute the other aspects of their life. They recognize life involves more than one mission at a time. They also take a deliberate approach to reset and refocus when changing missions.
Bonus tip: Having a tough time compartmentalizing after a rough day at work? Try mindfulness meditation for a few minutes on your commute home to let go of frustrations and refocus your attention on family or friends. Also, read HPRC’s “How do I improve my quality of life?” to make sure you’re using your time productively.
Finding what’s good and expecting good things to happen are also important strategies that optimistic thinkers use. Positive emotions are important to your productivity and act as a buffer against stress. They help you stay energized, broaden your awareness, be more creative, and strengthen your relationships. When facing adversity, taking the time to reflect on what’s good at the moment can help you stay ready and resilient. What are the opportunities in this struggle? Who might you be able to help through this experience? When you can’t find the silver lining, think about what you’re learning and how this experience is making you stronger for the future.
Bonus tip: The more you practice seeing and appreciating what’s good, the easier it will become during good times and bad times. Read HPRC’s “Why you should count your blessings to improve performance” to boost your ability to see what’s good.” Also, use HPRC’s Gratitude Calendar to help make noticing the good a habit.
Some people are born more optimistic than others. The good news is that you can improve your ability to think positively by asking yourself 5 questions.
- Where do I have control to make things better?
- What must I accept?
- How can I take productive action now?
- How can I keep one issue from affecting other parts of my life?
- What’s good?
To learn more about how to develop an optimistic mindset, read HPRC’s tips on how to shift into productive thinking.