Why It’s Never Too Late to Become an Optimist

“We can change our levels of optimism, even if we practice pessimism for many, many years.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • Which morning activity increases your odds of a bad day by 27%
  • How to find stress motivating, not threatening
  • Why taking a vacation may get you promoted

Michelle Gielan is a national CBS News anchor turned positive psychology researcher, and the bestselling author of Broadcasting HappinessIsaac Lidsky is a speaker, entrepreneur, and author of Eyes Wide Open. He recently hosted Michelle on Mastering Your Reality to discuss how we can conquer stress, optimize work performance, and dare to choose optimism.

Isaac: You’ve said, “Happiness doesn’t just happen. It takes attention.” I could not agree more. In many ways, it resonates with the core idea of my Eyes Wide Open vision on life, on proactively creating the reality we want for ourselves.

A lot of your work shows us the concrete, specific ways that we can control how we take in information, how we process that information, and how we project that information to influence ourselves and those around us.

Let’s [talk about] how some of our rituals, in terms of how we start our day, can have a lasting negative impact on our lives.

Michelle: Yeah. Because my background is in broadcasting, I’ve looked at the way the news shows us what the world could be like, for good and for bad, and then what that does to our brain. For instance, when you start your day with news, what does that do to you? We looked at the influence of three minutes of negative news on the brain, and what we found is if you start your day with those three minutes, it can increase your chances of having a bad day by 27%.

Isaac: That’s amazing.

Michelle: The news may act like a poison pill first thing in the morning instead of a vitamin, and you’re still feeling the effects as you’re cooking dinner with your family later that night. What I’m interested in is not so much the negative effects of negative news, but how we can talk about negative events in our lives in ways that leave us feeling empowered, ready to take action, ready to move forward.

In a followup study we found that when you are faced with a negative event, if you start looking at solutions and not just the problems, it makes you smarter. It increases your creative problem-solving by 20%, and it improves your mood significantly. So there is a better formula for staying involved and engaged with the news, or negative events at our companies. We just have to do it in a specific way in order to fuel our performance and success.

“We can talk about the negative, we just have to move the brain from problem to action.”

Isaac: The second study you discussed [showed] how the way we package bad news and share it with others can influence not only their realities, but our own, in the sense that it can either promote or inhibit productivity and progress. In a lot of ways, your research proves that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, right?

Michelle: That’s a great way to put it. For managers who are trying to lead their teams through tough times, we can talk about the negative, we just have to move the brain from problem to action. We did a study about our response to stress because we wanted to understand [how to] improve that response in order to fuel our success.

What we found is that 91% of us could respond to stress better. The main pitfall that people experienced was getting stuck in the problem. And hey, all of us, at some moment, get caught too. It’s just [a matter of] whether this is our predominant response.

People were reporting ruminating, thinking over and over about the problem. They’re not able, as quickly as they could, to get their brain to start focusing on what we can do about it. That’s where we came up with this idea of the “now step,” which is getting the brain to focus on one small, meaningful action you can take right now to start solving the problem.

It doesn’t have to solve the entire problem. That would be lovely, but in the meantime, just kick your brain into the action phase, get that small win, and then hopefully that’ll spur more positive action and get you to what you’re looking for.

Isaac: That’s fascinating. I love that your work suggests that this is about attention and being proactive and trying to manage your well-being.

Business Woman Doing Yoga Meditation On Office Desk

Michelle: Absolutely. All of these things that we talk about around mindset are malleable. If we’re trying to improve our height, [that’s] probably not going to happen, right? But for things like our optimism, our empowerment, our levels of luck, all of that is malleable. It just takes attention and practice. Just like I try to hit the yoga mat regularly, I try to engage in these positive habits.

Being an optimist is basically, in the midst of challenges, believing that your behavior matters, and expecting good things to happen. It’s being able to see that more positive reality, and then take the steps to get to it. The most exciting piece about the research is that it shows we can change our levels of optimism, even if we practice pessimism for many, many years. Again, it just takes that time and attention.

Isaac: When I’m struggling, or talking to others who are, I always love to think [how] you can always, always, find people in this world who have done far more with far less, and been a lot happier.

Switching gears, you’ve identified three dimensions of stress in your research. Do you mind telling us about those?

Michelle: Absolutely. The first one is the one that I mentioned, whether you stay stuck in the problem, or you actually move to an action plan. The second one is, “Are you keeping things inside you, or are you communicating them to people you trust?” It was really interesting, because you don’t want to talk to too few people, you also don’t want to talk to too many people. That’s just wasting your time.

Isaac: The bus driver doesn’t care.

“For things like our optimism, our empowerment, our levels of luck, all of that is malleable. It just takes attention and practice.”

Michelle: Yeah. It’s about having a few trusted folks that you feel confident opening up to. You’re building social connection in those moments, [and] social connection is the greatest predictor of long-term levels of happiness. The more you can build those [connections], the better off you are.

The third dimension is this idea of, “Are you staying calm when you’re encountering that stress? Is it one of those things where you see something coming down the pipeline, your blood pressure spikes up, it ruins the rest of your day? Or are you saying, ‘Hey, you know what? I think I can handle this.’”

That correlates really nicely with some other research that we’ve done, [in which we] looked at the three greatest predictors of long-term success at work. One of the main ones is your response to stress, whether you view it as a threat, so that your brain goes into fight-or-flight, or you view it as a challenge. [For] the people who view it as a challenge, their brain gets turned on to its highest levels of potential. They found in a study that when they split stressed-out managers into two groups and train one group to look at stress as a challenge, those folks, with the same levels of stress as everybody else, ended up reporting a 23% drop in stress-related symptoms, like headaches, backaches, and fatigue.

If we can work on those three dimensions, we can improve our well-being, [and] it also connects with higher levels of success at work.

Isaac: I was hoping we might [conclude with] some work that you’ve done on the importance of using those vacation days. You’ve shown it: taking vacation makes you better at your job. Yet from 2000 to 2015, Americans are taking roughly a third less vacation, right?

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Michelle: Yeah, they leave something like billions of dollars of vacation days on the table. I encourage everyone, take your vacation! If there’s ever a fear in your mind that says, “I can’t really get away,” don’t listen to any of that. The reason vacation is so powerful is that if you do it right, mentally disconnecting from work, you’re giving your brain a break. And our brain needs that break in order to come back stronger and better.

Our research finds that if you take a full vacation load over the course of your year, you’re significantly more likely to get a promotion. You’re more likely to get a raise. We found, in particular, that those folks who took 11 or more vacation days came back with a 30% greater likelihood of achieving those positive outcomes. So please, take your vacation days. Actually, when I go on vacation, on my email autoresponder I share a link to that Harvard Business Review article that we wrote, “The Data-Driven Case for Vacation.” And I’ve gotten more positive responses from people from that email than anything else I send out.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed.