First, a question. (We'll talk about why the answer matters in a moment.)
How optimistic are you?
One way to determine how optimistic you are is by comparing yourself with other people, but that's problematic. Take the famous (infamous) survey that found over 80 percent of respondents claim to be above-average drivers, even though that's mathematically impossible, since all respondents had, at some point in their lives, been injured in car accidents.
Findings like that are easy to laugh at, until you realize that we tend to think we're above average at almost everything. A meta-analysis of studies shows people rate themselves as above average in creativity, intelligence, dependability, athleticism, honesty, friendless. Do a survey about almost any trait and the vast majority of us rate ourselves above average.
That's why a better way to answer "How optimistic are you?" could be to take the Revised Life Orientation Test.
All you have to do is rate yourself on 10 statements using this scale:
0: Strongly Disagree
4: Strongly Agree
Here are the questions:
- In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.
- It's easy for me to relax.
- If something can go wrong for me, it will.
- I'm always optimistic about my future.
- I enjoy my friends a lot.
- It's important for me to keep busy.
- I hardly ever expect things to go my way.
- I don't get upset too easily.
- I rarely count on good things happening to me.
- Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad.
Scoring yourself is a little trickier:
- First, throw out your answers to questions 2, 5, 6, and 8. They're filler questions. (Researchers are such tricksters.)
- Reverse your scores for questions 3, 7, and 9. If you strongly agree and gave yourself a "4" for "If something can go wrong for me, it will," change the 4 to a 0.
- Now add up your scores. (To recap, only add up the answers to questions 1, 3, 4, 7, 9, and 10.)
Keep in mind the test creators don't assume a cut-off point for "optimistic" or "pessimistic." They use the scale as a "continuous dimension of variability." (As with most things, we all exist on some sort of spectrum.)
Even so, your score will fall into one of three broad categories:
- 0 to 13: Low Optimism (High Pessimism)
- 14 to 18: Moderate Optimism
- 19 to 24: High Optimism (Low Pessimism)
If you're wondering, I scored a 22, possibly because my age puts me well to the right of the happiness curve.
Why Does Optimism Matter?
For one thing, your general level of optimism affects your goals. Whether you put time and resources into pursuing a goal, like starting a business, depends on your confidence in achieving that goal.
You don't need research to tell you -- although such research exists -- that you're unlikely to start or stick with a goal if you doubt you'll ever succeed.
A global tendency to hold positive expectancies regarding the future is at the core of the concept of optimism.
This means that dispositional optimism is likely to impact how hard we strive to achieve goals across a range of life domains.
Your level of optimism also affects the level of stress and anxiety you feel. According to the lead author of a study of nearly 160,000 women across four decades, "Optimistic people may also be better at regulating their emotions during stressful situations."
Which also makes sense; it's easy to be less concerned in the moment when your default setting is that things usually turn out OK.
And then there's this: Optimistic people tend to live longer. According to the same longitudinal study, higher optimism was associated with longer lifespan and a greater likelihood of achieving exceptional longevity.
Less stress. Increased likelihood of achieving goals. Greater longevity.
Clearly optimism matters.
How to Be More Optimistic
All of which sounds great. But if you scored, say, a 10 on the Revised Life Orientation Test, you might be thinking, "OK. But where's this optimism switch I'm supposed to flip?"
You're right for thinking that way, at least in part. Research shows approximately 25 percent of our optimism set-point is genetic.
But that means 75 percent of your level of optimism can be shaped and learned. In one study, participants who spent five minutes a day for two weeks imagining their "best possible self" (in terms of professional, relationship, and personal goals) experienced significant increases in optimism.
If visualization isn't your thing -- it definitely isn't mine -- try another approach: Spend more time with optimistic people. They tend to be more encouraging. More supportive. A little of their enthusiasm will rub off on you.
If spending time in groups isn't your thing -- it kind of isn't mine -- then take a step back and think about your mindset. Generally speaking, people fall into two camps:
- Those with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence, ability, and skill are inborn and relatively fixed. That we are what we were born with. Someone with a fixed mindset might say, "I didn't handle that conflict well. I'm clearly not a leader."
- People with a growth mindset believe that intelligence, ability, and skill can be developed through effort. That we are what we work to become. Someone with a growth mindset might say, "I didn't handle that conflict well, but next time I'll be more prepared."
People who embrace a growth mindset believe success is based on effort and application, not innate talent. That makes them more optimistic.
The future, your future, is what you make it.
Think of it that way -- start to embrace a growth mindset -- and you'll have reason to be optimistic.
Because who you are, and who you work to become, is absolutely capable of achieving your biggest goals.