A recent study showed that optimists are likelier than pessimists to live past age 85. Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published their findings last month. Optimism also makes for better work performance, so how can we foster it?
The article in question was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, or PNAS, on August 26. The PNAS study said that the psychological attribute of optimism—which focuses on harboring positive beliefs for the future—can add between 11 percent to 15 percent to the average person’s lifespan, “independent of socioeconomic status, health conditions, depression, social integration, and health behaviors (e.g. smoking, diet, and alcohol use).” The article also suggested that since these findings were consistent across such different demographics, and since optimism appears to be modifiable, optimism may “provide a valuable target” in testing for ways to improve longevity. In the meantime, positive attitudes can also vastly improve your workplace.
Outcomes of Optimism at Your Job
Using the Monday to Friday work week as a base model, there’s a reason Mondays are the least popular day of the week. Waking up early after two days off and commuting to a job that’s likely stressful and not immediately rewarding seems like a pretty big ask when that alarm clock goes off. However, taking a minute to get in the right frame of mind has tangible payoffs.
“Research has found a strong link between optimism and success at work,” said Dr. Beth Cabrera, Senior Scholar at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. “One study looked at the impact of positive thinking on performance of insurance agents working at MetLife. The researchers discovered that agents who scored in the top 10 percent on an assessment of optimism sold 88 percent more than insurance agents who scored in the bottom 10 percent.”
And MetLife is no anomaly. Dr. Cabrera said that a study of several organizations showed a correlation between employee optimism and higher performance ratings. “People are more likely to work hard and persist towards their goal if they expect to succeed,” she said.
Learning and Fostering Optimism in the Workplace
Pessimism is a learned behavior, and it can be unlearned. Although it’s easier said than done, there are several behaviors that can be practiced to turn pessimism about work into optimism. How do we learn to foster optimism while in the workplace?
“The first step is to recognize your own pessimistic thinking,” Dr. Cabrera said. “By paying attention to your self-talk you will start to notice when you are being pessimistic. Words like ‘always’—’I always make the wrong choice’—or ‘never’—’business is never going to get any better’—imply permanent, global causes.” Those permanent causes are generally unfounded.
Second, dispute pessimistic thoughts with rational thinking. Dr. Cabrera said that showing yourself that your pessimistic thoughts are factually incorrect is a great way to shed them. “Make sure you aren’t overgeneralizing or blowing things out of proportion,” she said. “One mistake doesn’t mean you are a total failure.” She also recommended imagining someone saying your negative thoughts to you in a confrontation and then considering what you’d say to counter them.
The third step is to consider other reasons for bad outcomes at work. “Almost everything has multiple contributing causes; list all the possible causes and choose to focus on those that are temporary and specific,” Dr. Cabrera said.
Finally, if something at work goes wrong and there is no better explanation or optimistic outcome—maybe you lost a client or got written up or something else happened that’s clearly and explicitly your fault—you can “decatastrophize” your reaction to the event. Step back and imagine how much this bad event will impact your life in the future.
“If the worst outcome does occur and you lose your job, how likely is it that you’ll never find another one?” Dr. Cabrera asked. “What is the probability that you will run out of money and not be able to buy food or keep your home? Even the worst-case scenarios often aren’t as catastrophic as we think.”
Dr. Beth Cabrera contributed to this article. Dr. Cabrera is a Senior Scholar at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University, where she conducts research on applying principles of positive psychology to improve personal and professional well-being. She received her Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology.