Resilience And Aging: Part 3- Realistic Optimism

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This article is part of a 5-part weekly series on Resilience and Aging from our partner Dr. Gillian Leithman at Rewire to Retire.

Dr. Gillian Leithman offers her considerable expertise and knowledge on the challenging transition period between career and retirement. Her writing offers readers advice and insights into preparing to retire and living a fulfilling post-career life. 

Optimism is a belief in a hopeful future, a confident attitude that all will work out, and an expectation that if I work hard enough and focus on the things that I can control, I will be successful. In contrast, pessimism is a belief that the future is bleak, I lack the skills and abilities to deal with life’s challenges, so why should I even try to influence these circumstances?

The optimist and pessimist have very different expectations and thoughts about the future which translate into very different actions.  But, don’t fret – there is good news for those who were not born optimists.

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Because optimism involves thoughts and behaviors, it means we can teach people how to become more optimistic.

Let’s start by looking at a concept called explanatory style a term coined by Dr. Martin Seligman which refers to how a person explains, both good and bad events, to oneself and to others. One’s explanatory style involves three dimensions:

Internal vs. External: Is the cause of the event a result of my actions, or due to situational factors?

Stable vs. Unstable: Is the cause of the event permanent, or temporary?

Global vs. Specific: Will the cause of the event permeate my entire life, or is it restricted to one area?

Optimists perceive negative events as external, unstable and specific. Meaning, they perceive negative events to be a result of environmental factors, are temporary and influence few areas of one’s life.

For example, an optimist would explain a failure as, “that accounting practice is so complicated to understand and a lot more difficult than the other rules and regulations. I guess it will require more time and effort to fully grasp”. Optimists minimize their perception of a challenging situation, perceive the event as temporary and localize it to a specific domain. In contrast, a pessimist would assess the same event as internal, stable and global, and sound like the following: “I am stupid, and I don’t have the intelligence to succeed at this new job”.

For the pessimist, negative events are attributed to a person’s character, factors that are permanent and unchangeable, and generalize to many areas of one’s life. They often describe negative events using words such as “always” or “never”.

When pessimists face stressful events, they tend to amplify the threat, undervalue their ability to cope, disparage themselves, and assume the problem will expand to other domains of their lives. This results in feelings of helplessness, depression, and a negative impact on one’s physical and mental well-being.

When optimists are faced with stressful events they perceive the circumstances as challenging as opposed to threatening, which fosters feelings of control.

For example, Marla receives a negative health diagnosis. She becomes overwhelmed and panicked. Unable to cope she withdraws from her friends and family and retreats from colleagues at work. In contrast, Jenny, a realistic optimist, focuses on what she can control. That does not mean that Jenny is not scared and upset. Of course, she is upset! She is human. However, Jenny focuses on how to deal with her diagnosis and what strategies she can employ to manage her situation.

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Contrary to a person who employs a pessimistic thinking style and focuses on everything that is outside her control, the optimist will find something, however small, to focus her attention on, which translates into pro-active behaviours.

For example, the “realistic optimist” seeks out information on her diagnosis. She researches doctors, looks to others in the same situation who may have advice to impart, and asks for help. These actions foster a sense of comfort and control as they focus on elements of a situation that one can influence. For the realistic optimist, the belief in a hopeful future translates into concrete action.

If you employ a pessimistic explanatory style and want to develop your resilience muscles, you must challenge your thinking and how you perceive stressful events. Your goal is to determine what actions, if any, you can take to improve your situation.

The following are some useful questions that will help you “reframe” challenging circumstances:

  • Is there a more constructive way of looking at this situation?
  • What are the consequences of this thinking pattern?
  • Am I exaggerating the potential consequences of these circumstances?
  • Will this really impact all areas of my life?

This strategy will lead you to decipher, “what here is within my control”, from “what in this situation do I need to accept”, channeling your energies to elements of a situation that you CAN in fact influence and growing your resilience muscles.

Check back next week when we look at Resilience And Aging: Part 4-Physical Activity.

 

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