Optimism Helps You Achieve Goals and It Can Be Learned

Optimism Helps You Achieve Goals and It Can Be Learned

We all have friends who are always disappointed with their situation and blame others. We have other friends who are full of life and usually very optimistic.

Some people are a lot more fun to be around, their optimistic nature is a big part of their pull. Such people are the ones everyone wants to hang out with.

Though these people have fun personalities, you might wonder whether having an optimistic personality can have a positive effect on goal achievement too.

This blog post will show the difference between optimistic and pessimistic thinking, the effect of this thinking on life events, how you learned to be pessimistic, and how you can learn optimism now.  

Research shows that optimism along with an ability to adjust your goals is a good predictor of quality of life.

In his book, “The Ride of Lifetime”, Robert Iger mentions ten values that buoy leadership and help you achieve goals in personal life and business. He listed optimism as the first value!

Pessimistic vs Optimistic People 

Scientists say that compared to pessimists, optimists have a strong tendency to persist towards achieving their goals during tough situations.

As they are confident about their future, optimists put in a  consistent effort throughout while pessimists avoid the situation and hope it goes away.

Optimists also look for growth opportunities more, they are on the lookout for any chance of development. They use setbacks as an opportunity to help them learn and grow.

When the goals are blocked due to some reason or they fail to achieve the goal, optimists are able to find humor in it, they are able to reframe the situation and accept the situation with grace.

Research on undergraduate students showed that optimists focused on the issue and tried to solve it if they knew that it was solvable.

Also, unlike pessimists, if the optimists realized that goal attainment was not possible or the situation was uncontrollable, they were able to find a positive angle to the situation: They usually change the goal and divert it to the correct path.

It was believed in the past that when a specially tough goal is pursued and setbacks are expected, ability and motivation would ensure success.  Scientists have now discovered that the belief that success will be achieved is as important as the other two factors. 

So, optimism is such a strong factor in this case that an expectation to succeed results in over-achievement, and the opposite belief can result in a lack of achievement.

Learned Helplessness

This lack of belief demotivates you and you do not put in an effort to achieve your goal. With this kind of thinking you start feeling a lack of motivation, decreased confidence, and an increase in stress.

A more damaging effect is that you seem to lose the sense of whether you have control over a situation. Even when you can control the situation, you think that you cannot. At extreme levels, these factors cause clinical depression.

This is called “learned helplessness” where an individual is used to explaining what happened to them in a way that shows they could not control it. Examples of such explanations would be:

“I’m not very intelligent” –  implies that it’s your fault. This statement also shows that this reason can be used in all other situations and for a long time.

“I can never understand this marketing tool” –   implies that it’s your fault again but this won’t trickle into other areas of your life or have as much of a long term effect as the first statement.

If you are prone to using statements like above then you are also suffering from learned helplessness.

Effect of Pessimistic vs Optimistic Thinking

People who are more optimistic will come across an issue and will think that they were unsuccessful at this specific attempt, they will understand that it is a temporary situation and they will not blame themselves.

This is not to say that these optimistic people don’t take any blame. It is compulsive and habitual self-degrading which is an issue.

Both styles of thinking have a domino effect. Let’s take two people in a similar situation.

John has a goal to learn graphic design by watching a YouTube course. After trying out a lesson five times he thinks that he is not capable of working with this software and never will be. He blames himself for choosing the wrong goal once more.

Peter is also pursuing the same goal. When he is unable to complete the lesson, he thinks that it just needs more time and he is very new to the software. He is sure that there are other people who would have taken many attempts too. He thinks it is an issue today but it will not last for much longer.

These two approaches have different results. John will get anxious and stressed out. He will avoid doing the lessons and find simpler chores to do at his house or pursue less challenging goals to waste time.

As he is expecting to fail, he will not pay as much attention to the lesson as he did before and he won’t understand the lesson again. He will use this result to confirm that he is not capable of learning the software and he is bad at choosing goals.

Peter will have a totally different experience. He will think of how he approached the lesson, he will put his mobile on silent as it was disturbing him the last time, and make better notes.

Peter will challenge himself to put more time into the lesson and solve a complex issue.  He will be confident through the process and bounce back from setbacks.

The main takeaway is here that a bad incident can derail you for the long term or you can take it in a positive way and keep approaching your goal.

If you are an eternal pessimist or you are more prone to think negative, you might ask if optimism can be learned, the good news is that it is possible!

How to Learn Optimism

There are certain methods that individuals can use to learn optimism and steer their self-defeating thinking towards the correct path.

This is how you learn optimism: 

Identify Self-Defeating Beliefs

Scientific research shows that you can learn optimism. The initial steps require you to work on identifying your triggers that create self-defeating beliefs and then evaluate those beliefs

Giving presentations might trigger nervousness for you and you had a bad presentation recently.  Knowing that the next presentation is close can bring in thoughts like:

“Will the audience think that I don’t know what I am talking about”


“I am not a natural at this”.

These statements are examples of a self-defeating belief.

Evaluate the Belief

Now, you can work on evaluating the above belief. You can be do this with the help of the ABC model :

Adversity:  I had a bad presentation recently.

Belief: I am not a natural at this. The audience will think I am incompetent

Consequences: When this happens, I  feel nervous and embarrassed. I think of past instances where I had failures.

Schulman added a fourth factor into the model:

Dispute: Once the above factors are identified, it is good to challenge the authenticity of these factors and write about them:

“It is true that the previous presentation did not go well and I can get nervous when delivering it but that does not define who I am as a person nor does it say anything about my general competency. The point of the presentation is to give a clear message. I will work on the presentation and practice it more in front of the mirror. If I face any issues during my presentation, it has happened to most people and I will move on”.

Schulman also suggested asking yourself the evidence behind your thinking and looking for alternative explanations. By focusing on factors that you can control, you can work towards fixing the issue that keeps you down.

You can also think of the worst-case scenario. Usually, you might think of this already but consciously thinking about it and making a note would help more.

The process is effective but it is a long process. What can you do if you feel self-defeating thoughts just before your presentation? 

Quick Ways to Feel Optimistic

If you are about to give a presentation and these self-defeating thoughts kick up, Schulman suggests the following methods:

  • Shift your focus towards the audience or on the setup of the room or your watch so your attention is diverted to something else.
  • Schedule a 15-30 minute time to worry about this later. This idea is also shared in the book 12 Rules for Life. Your mind knows that it will get a chance to think about those thoughts later and you can focus on the moment.
  • Play mental games like counting backward or spelling words backward.
  • Write down your feelings if you have enough time to do it.
  • Think about a successful time or a happy memory.

These things can turn your thoughts from negative chatter to something more upbeat and positive. Right now you might be letting your brain go on with its chatter, these methods introduce a more conscious way of thinking.

Even with all of this, it is important not to be delirious with optimism. It is important to be a realist too and look at all the good and bad options when pursuing a goal. If you do see indications that your goal is not practical, it is better to move it in a better direction. Accepting everything in the name of optimism is not a good idea.

You should just not be heavily inclined on the side of pessimism when you can put in an effort and make a difference in this world. If your expectations are positive, your actions will follow and you can achieve the goals that you focus on.

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