How Optimism Enhances Performance.
It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which,
more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.
In my article, Optimizing Optimism, I explained that optimism (in judicious amounts) is correlated with better outcomes across a wide range of performance domains such as health, business, academics, and sports. What is less clear is whether optimism is more likely to be a cause or consequence of these positive outcomes (correlation is not causation).
What would be helpful in making this distinction is a plausible mechanism of action – that is, a way that optimistic thoughts or beliefs might get translated to actual behaviors that impact performance. After all, beliefs cannot just magically improve performance.
In this article, I provide three such possible mechanisms of action by peeling back the curtain on optimism and taking a closer look at how the word is defined and operationalized in the research literature.
Our guiding question is: How do we get from optimism to enhanced performance?
Expectations and Explanations: 2 Meanings of Optimism
Before we can answer the HOW, we need to understand the WHAT. What exactly do we mean by optimism?
Researchers have defined optimism in two main ways:
Dispositional Optimism: a generalized tendency to expect good things in the future
Dispositional optimism is the brainchild of Micheal Scheier and Charles Carver and is the construct that most closely resembles the lay or colloquial understanding of optimism. For Scheier and Carver, who view human behavior largely in terms of goal-directed activity, optimism is most impactful when people encounter impediments to achieving their goals. Those with an optimistic disposition believe that they can succeed in the face of difficulties and are more likely to sustain or ramp up efforts to attain their goals rather than giving up.
Optimistic Explanatory Style: a pattern of explaining bad outcomes in a positive way
The conceptualization of optimism as an explanatory style comes from the work of Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology. Seligman presents optimism as an antidote to depression and learned helplessness, which he views as stemming from a pessimistic explanatory style whereby negative events are seen as personal (this always happens to me), pervasive (it’s all bad), and permanent (it will never get better). In Learned Optimism, Seligman explains how people can become more content and successful by learning to view negative events in a circumscribed way, attributing them to external, specific, and temporary causes.
Each of these models takes optimism to be a dimension of personality that has both genetic and environmental influences and has far-reaching impact across many areas of life. While the two definitions differ in their temporal focus (dispositional optimism focuses on the future and explanatory style focuses on the past), they are inextricably linked in the sense that people’s expectations for the future often derive from how they view the causes of past events.
From Belief to Action: 3 Mechanisms of Optimism
Now for the HOW: How do people’s beliefs about the past and future impact performance?
The most common explanation on offer is that optimism exerts its positive influence primarily through its impact on motivation and effort, as reflected in the following three types of behaviors:
Ambitious Goal Setting
We are kept from our goal not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal. ~Bhagavad Gita
Because optimistic people expect good things to happen in the future, they are less encumbered by fear of failure and hence attempt more challenging tasks and set more ambitious goals for themselves than do pessimists. The simple act of aiming higher thereby increases the likelihood of greater achievement.
Assertive Decision Making
Audentes fortuna juvat. (Fortune favors the bold.) ~Latin Proverb
The reduced fear of failure also translates to a more assertive approach to making decisions. Optimistic people are less preoccupied with the possibility of making mistakes, and so are less hindered by excessive deliberation or “paralysis by analysis.” This gives optimists a distinct advantage in performance situations which call for quick, decisive actions.
Approach Coping Style
Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it. ~Joseph Conrad.
When faced with difficulty or a stressful situation, optimists feel empowered to tackle problems and challenges head on. This problem-focused or approach coping style has been shown to be adaptive in many contexts because it allows one to continue to move forward toward the attainment of goals rather than withdrawing effort to prevent harm or failure.
Optimism spurs the initiation and ongoing maintenance of goal-directed effort, particularly in the face of challenges. Such persistent effort inevitably leads to increased success, which then reinforces the optimistic attitude and motivates continued investment of effort. This positive feedback loop triggers a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in which the belief in ultimate success prompts behaviors that dramatically increase the likelihood of success.
If you think you can catch the bus, you’ll run for it.
If you are optimistic about your chances of eventual success, you are more likely to set ambitious goals, be decisive in your actions, face difficulties head on, and see failures as temporary roadblocks rather than a cause to question your abilities or goals. It is optimism’s effect on persistence that seems to matter most. By making the goal-striving process agreeable, an optimistic attitude supports continued effort toward goals and helps prevent minor setbacks from undermining self-esteem.
Due to its impact on persistence, optimism is often subsumed under broader categories such as mental toughness, hardiness, resilience, and grit. Which of these terms is adopted is often more a matter of personal taste than conceptual superiority. In the end, they may all simply serve as different proxies for perseverance and the investment of persistent, goal-directed effort.
Let me sum up with the following syllogism:
Optimists tend to keep trying.
Those who keep trying are more likely to succeed.
Therefore, optimists are more likely to succeed.
It seems embarrassingly simple and obvious when put this way, doesn’t it?
If you are thinking “this all sounds fine and dandy, but what if I am a natural-born pessimist and find it difficult to adopt a more optimistic outlook?” Not to worry. In my next article, From Obstacles to Opportunities, I will teach you some practical strategies for training yourself to see things in a more positive light.
With you in the pursuit,
References and Suggested Reading:
Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, 2006
Dispositional Optimism, by Carver & Scheier, 2014