Putting optimism to work

Is the glass half full or half empty? Your answer might depend on whether you’ve just looked at your investment statements or heard another doom-and-gloom story in the news.

But ignore the simplicity of the philosophical question for a moment. Optimism isn’t about thinking happy thoughts all the time or dodging life’s problems. How we see the world affects how we view challenges and work to overcome them. Pessimism would have us believe that our world is in swift decline and we should be prepared to expect the worst. Optimism expects good outcomes and anticipates things are getting better.

It isn’t hard to guess which outlook we need to improve our well-being and prosperity. We already know that having a positive outlook reaps health benefits like less stress, reduced risk for chronic illness, improved recovery from illness and even our longevity. However, we can also thank optimists for much of the innovation and progress we’ve made over the decades.

Why? Experts remind us that optimists aren’t ignorant of the challenges and obstacles we face, but their unfailing belief that things are going to get better fuels the drive to make them better. From civil rights to high tech, a can-do attitude gets things done.

“Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward,” said Nelson Mandela in a now-famous quote. “There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair.”

Why we should stay positive

How can we keep our heads turned towards the sun? Like countless generations before us, we may feel we’re at a crossroads with an economic and environmental crisis looming. The speed at which bad news travels makes it easy to imagine that our planet is on a steady downward spiral.

Unless you listen to experts like Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist. Ridley’s affirmations that “things are better now than they ever have been in the past” and that “the best is yet to come” almost seem absurd in contrast to what we hear in the media. But in his talk at ideaCity 2011, he offered proof for the skeptical.

For example, Ridley notes that across the globe, the value of the most countries’ Gross Domestic Product has increased in the past 200 years, even after you account for the increase in population. If this growth continues to accelerate, Ridley predicts the average salary by the end of this century could be $100,000 to $200,000 worldwide. (No, that’s not just in countries in North America and Europe — that average includes developing countries.)

Is it merely a case of the rich getting richer? Not so, says Ridley. Fewer people are living in poverty now than in the past. It may not be happening fast enough for our liking, but it is happening: people are slowly being lifted out of poverty. There are fewer people today living on $1 a day or less than in previous decades. Furthermore, people in countries like India and China are getting rich at a faster rate than people in well-off nations like the U.S.

We owe much of this prosperity to innovation. Today, we can fulfill our basic needs with less time and effort than in the past — leaving us with more energy to spend on other things. For example, we may be frustrated by rising energy costs, but Ridley notes something as simple as light is incredibly cheap now compared to the past. Today, it takes less than second for the average worker to earn enough money to pay for a single light bulb to provide an hour of light. In 1950, it would have taken eight seconds — and in 1880, it would have taken 15 minutes thanks to kerosene lamps. At the turn of the 19th century, the average worker wouldn’t have been able to afford an hour’s worth of light from a tallow candle.

The benefits are even more numerous, explains Ridley. On the whole, we’re living longer, we’re healthier, we donate more, we’re smarter, we’re more equal and we’re more peaceful, he says. For example, from 2000 to 2010, fewer people died in war than any other decade since before the World War II — though it doesn’t always seem that way when we hear of yet another casualty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

But will these benefits hold up over time? Ridley believes so. “All the trends are going in the right direction,” he notes, even if they don’t accelerate as quickly as in the past.

How can he be so hopeful? Human ingenuity has a way of coping with the challenges thrown our way. For example, extreme weather stories are scary, but more people are surviving these catastrophes than ever before thanks to better infrastructure, warning systems, communications systems, transportation and medicine.

When it comes to solving problems, our biggest asset may just be our “collective intelligence”: the ability to bring ideas and people together to innovate and invent. Ridley argues that “ideas having sex” — coming together and begetting other ideas, that is — holds the key to our future prosperity. Our technology allows us to share and build on ideas like never before, thanks to the information exchange made possible by the internet.

Overall, it’s a good time to be alive — and it’s only going to get better.

How optimism can work for us

Even if Ridley is right and the present and the future may not be as bad as we think, how can people who are not natural optimists become more upbeat? Experts say there are ways to retrain the way we think — and reap the benefits, financial and otherwise, of adopting a more optimistic outlook.

Transform negative self-talk. Sometimes all we see are the reasons why something can’t be done rather than ways we can accomplish a goal. Experts say pessimists tend to internalize problems — if they couldn’t figure out how to assemble a product, they might blame their lack of skills. Optimists often see problems as being outside of themselves — that same challenge might be blamed on bad instructions or having an “off day”. 

Same goes with success — pessimists might attribute a success at work to a fluke or “getting lucky”. An optimist would attribute it to hard work.

Notice a trend here? How we see ourselves and our situation affects how we react. Experts say we can transform negative thoughts into positive ones and change out outlook. (Need a little help? Try this exercise.)

Take back control — and take responsibility. Optimists aren’t immune to problems — but they believe they can do something about them. Feeling we are in control of our lives reduces stress and makes us happier. We can’t control everything that happens, but we can control how we react to situations and take responsibility for our problems. We can set goals and work towards them rather than seeing ourselves as helpless victims.

For instance, consider personal finance. It seems like we’re at the mercy of the markets, but we can put some of our financial worries to rest by attending to our budget, refining our retirement savings plan and taking control of our spending habits. We can set targets for savings: even if they are small steps, they’re steps in the right direction.

Autonomy also benefits us in our careers. Many people thrive in positions where they have more control and authority — like becoming their own boss.

Turn problems into opportunities. There’s truth in that oft-repeated adage about turning lemons into lemonade. Sure, we’re facing a lot of tough issues, but experts say there’s plenty of room for innovation.

“The world’s biggest challenges — the grand challenges of our life — also represent the world’s biggest revenue opportunities,” says Peter Diamandis in his talk at ideaCity 2012. Healthcare, the environment, the aging of our population — these are all areas ready for innovation.

Even if we aren’t in a position to tackle world hunger or create the latest energy-saving gadget, there are things we can do on a smaller scale. You might pursue a job opportunity in an industry where you know there is a need — like renewable energy or health care, for instance. Or, find a solution to a problem or a need that your customers are facing. Instead of thinking a situation is never going to change, find ways to introduce the change you’d like to see — like better communication among departments. 

Count your blessings. Research has shown that feeling grateful for what we have is a crucial ingredient for our happiness and health. And on a financial note, we’re not struggling to “keep up with the Joneses” or spend our way into happiness if we’re content with what we have.  Maybe your current job isn’t perfect or your home doesn’t have the latest renovations, but you may just find contentment in realizing how good things are compared to others, past or present.

Watch Matt Ridley’s talk at ideaCity 2011.

Additional sources: The New York Times, Psychology Today