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Learning to be more optimistic could save your life

BIG IDEA

The power of positive thinking is backed by science.

Mental health has become a critical issue as we continue to deal with the global pandemic. The stress, fear and isolation that many people around the world have experienced is creating concern about the short-term and long-term psychological impact. This is certainly a theme that is coming up a lot in my conversations with senior executives. They are grappling with how to take care of and support their employees, while striving to drive the success of their organizations.

Can you learn to look on the bright side?

Part of the answer lies in developing a more optimistic perspective, even the face of tremendous challenge and uncertainty. Studies have shown that people who have an optimistic outlook are less likely to suffer from depression, and even have better overall physical health. Compared to pessimists, optimists are less likely to deal with a wide range of physical symptoms, and are less likely to die early from heart problems. Optimists who have cancer tend to survive longer than pessimists with the same conditions.

This can feel like a trap for people who are suffering from serious illness. One of the best-known researchers in this area, Michael F. Scheier, has spoken about how some patients recovering from illness have gotten in touch with him to share that his work makes them feel guilty—that if they don’t recover, it’s their own fault for not being sufficiently optimistic.

But the reason optimists tend to do better lies less in how they think and more in how they react to stress. In short, optimists face their problems directly, work to solve them, and get support when they need it. These are behaviors anyone can learn.

WHY IT MATTERS

Truly accountable leaders are realistic optimists.

The research my team and I conducted for my book, Accountable Leaders, revealed that expressing optimism is one of the core behaviors that distinguishes accountable leaders from disengaged, unaccountable leaders.

You can’t lead people towards a better future if you don’t believe it’s possible. But the challenge for leaders is not just to think positive thoughts, but to take steps to build that better future. Leaders must not only think like optimists, they must act like optimists, too.

THE IMPACT

Optimism also makes good business sense.

As I’ve written before, research shows that optimism pays off at work. Focusing on gratitude and positive thinking at work can not only increase employee engagement, it can improve profits.

Of course, the impact of optimism on mental and physical health is far more important than profits. There’s no other leadership technique that can reduce suicidal thoughts, or slow the growth of atherosclerosis. If learning and modeling optimism can have such profound impacts on health and even mortality, what could be more important?

WHAT TO PAY ATTENTION TO

Optimists are realistic problem-solvers.

It’s likely that genetics, upbringing, and experiences in early childhood play a role in developing an optimistic outlook. But there are strategies optimists use to cope with stressful situations that anyone can learn, even if they don’t come naturally.

Here are some things realistic optimists do to cope:

  • They accept the reality of a situation rather than falling back on denial.
  • They actively look for ways to eliminate, reduce, or manage stressful situations, rather than avoiding or ignoring them.
  • They adopt healthy habits, like eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising.
  • They look for silver linings and focus on the positive aspects of their situation more than the negative.
  • They find ways to support others and gain meaning by help others succeed in challenging times.

When all else fails, they hold on to their sense of humor.

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About Leadership Contract

We are Leadership Contract Inc (LCI), your partner in strategic leadership development. We help you operationalize leadership accountability at all levels of your organization so you can drive strategy, shape culture, and spark change.

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