Updated: May 1, 2020
We live in a time when negativity is the norm; where criticism is the culture; and where apathy anesthetizes us from the things that matter. The most radical and rebellious choice you can make is to be optimistic.
The Optimism Myth
But there's a myth out there. The tale spun by critics is that Optimism is a naive outlook; a blind eye to reality; a fool's game. That optimism is nothing more that a feel good attitude; just 'Be happy', 'think positive thoughts', and 'wish your way' out of morning traffic and bad haircuts.
But optimism is, in fact, none of those things. Optimism is the ability to envision a better future and the creativity to make a way there.
Optimism has been misunderstood, mischaracterized, and misrepresented. It is not just positive thinking, feel-good attitudes, or rose-colored glasses. It is not peace, love, and lollipops.
Optimism is Disruptive
It is about challenging assumptions and thinking creatively. It is refusing to settle for less; taking greater risks for the greater good. It’s about learning to think critically in order to act progressively. It is stubborn; it is audacious; and it is absolutely ruthless in the fight for a better future.
Optimism is a disruptive force. It's a hard choice. It's a brave act. It's a daily discipline. And it is most needed in the face of fear, despair, and apathy.
It's easy to find fault, make excuses, or point out all the reasons something won’t work. It doesn't take a genius to do that. In fact, there is no brilliance in cynicism; no genius in "realism". A person is not more evolved because they have the ability to criticize.
The genius belongs to the problem solver. To the one who sees possibilities where others do not. To the one who is resolved to find a solution in the face of obstacles. Rober H. Schuller explains that, "optimism refuses to believe that the road ends without options." Optimism is the generator of options.
Optimism Shapes the Greats
"Almost every successful person begins with two beliefs; the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so." -David Brooks
Optimism is the key to resilience, achievement, creativity, and impact. The Dalai Lama explains that before you take a positive action, you first must have a positive vision. Optimism is the positive vision that prods us to forge ahead.
Optimism Forms Resilience
"Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it." -Chuck Swindoll
Viktor Frankl, in his wonderful little book Man’s Search for Meaning, relates his observations of captives in German concentration camps. Age, health, education, and ability could not predict who would survive the atrocities there. It was their attitude. Only those who believed there was something better coming tomorrow were able to survive, and ultimately walk away from those camps.
Optimism Drives Achievement
"Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence." - Helen Keller
Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor explains that traditional formula for success and happiness is wrong. Society has trained us to believe that "If I work hard, then I will be successful. And when I am successful, then I'll be happy." But the inverse is true. Happiness fuels success. Thousands of studies in psychology and neuroscience show that when we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive.
Optimism Sparks Creativity
"But out of limitations comes creativity." -Debbie Allen
But optimists see limitations as a creative challenge. When we operate from a place of fear, our brain is able to generate exactly two responses: fight or flight. These responses are controlled by the oldest part of our brain, the amygdala, two almond-shaped nuggets near the base of our skull that helped our ancestors survive primal threats. But as we evolved, so has our brain. When we operate from a place of positivity, we engage a more sophisticated part of the brain near the front of our skull, the prefrontal cortex. This region controls our creativity, empathy, problem solving, and out-of-the-box thinking. Our perspective broadens, we see other options, and we develop creative solutions.
Optimism Fuels Innovation
"Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity - not a threat." -Steve Jobs
Change can be scary. But optimists welcome change as an opportunity. In the Netflix original, Bill's Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, the filmmaker comments, "what struck me about [Bill Gates] was his optimism." Bill gates is known for the audacious goals he's set, achieved, and continues to pursue. Artists, creatives, and innovators all share the deep desire to create, and to make change happen.
Optimism and Impact
"Optimism is invaluable for the meaningful life. With a firm belief in a positive future, you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are." -Martin E.P. Selignman
A life of significance is based on adding value to others and living for something larger than yourself. Without optimism, you are driven by fear, and fear fuels a certain and predictable selfishness. You live only for yourself, your own needs, and your own success. And unfortunately, a life focused on Self does not create the meaning and satisfaction that we, as humans, are designed for.
Optimism is the Key to a Better Future
"Optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy for us to think nothing is going to get any better. In fact, these days, cynicism is obedience." -Alex Steffen
The opposite of optimism isn't pessimism. It is fear. Criticism, cynicism, blame, shame, procrastination, and exacerbation are all forms of fear. We mask it as 'enlightenment', or shroud it in aires of 'self-righteousness', but really, it's fear. And fear doesn't solve problems. It only creates and perpetuates them. Fear names the problem and stops there. It is trapped by its absolute lack of creativity.
If fear names the problem, then optimism takes the next step to create solutions. Optimism is the positive vision that precedes positive action.