The 3 Reasons Why Optimism Is Better Than Well-Being In Times Of Crisis
This article was originally published in Forbes.
In the Northern Hemisphere, we’re in the midst of the darkest months of the year. Many are isolated in their homes due to pandemic-related lockdowns, fearing not only for their health but for their livelihoods. The combination of this external darkness, the long days of isolation, and fear of the unknown has created, and continues to perpetuate, a negative impact on hundreds of millions of people around the world.
As companies consider how they might continue to lead their people during these challenging times, many are asking the same seemingly obvious question: How can we take care of the well-being of our employees and our leaders?
Considering the well-being of employees during a time like this is a noble cause, but it may be the wrong question to ask. The better question is, how can companies create a sense of optimism within their people?
Well-being is a passive emotional appraisal; Optimism is an active goal-oriented process
In times of crisis, a promise of well-being can create expectations of feeling at ease and in control. While in a normal state of being these feelings are crucial, during a prolonged crisis, they are not entirely realistic. Striving for optimal well-being may help people to better cope but is unlikely to translate to genuine growth and performance. The expectation of being well can also, in turbulent times, easily lead to disappointment and disillusionment. Many people are struggling to find solid footing, so a better goal would be to focus on optimism about the future, and an eventual return to those feelings of well-being and control in the days ahead.
During long periods of crisis, we must be more alert and ready to change direction and strategy as the world unfolds. Manageable stress is actually necessary to create a healthy tension between ‘what is’ and ‘what could be,’ translating to both individual development and business growth. Optimism is a more active goal-oriented process. Goal states – what we call self-regulation – is fundamentally about asking where we are now versus where we want to be. In crisis, more than ever, we must embrace the healthy tension between the desire to thrive and the omnipresent challenge of the times. Cultivating optimism allows for today to feel challenging, but also allows us to focus on what’s possible, igniting a sense of agency and ownership to work towards emerging from the crisis stronger. Instead of expecting things to get better, we approach each day and each challenge with curiosity and experimentation; we focus on the art of the possible.
Well-being is present and past-focused; Optimism is future focused
To persevere through turbulent seasons, companies need people who are optimistic that the world will change and change for the better. After all, optimism is what allows for sustainable and prolonged growth, as well as individual and business performance and success. Companies that want to accelerate through crisis must focus on optimism first. Well-being is vitally important, but during these current times, we need optimism.
Over the past several months, we at Potential Project have worked with dozens of international companies to instill an optimistic mindset in both leaders and employees. One such company, a global leader in consumer goods, approached us as they observed morale and engagement plummeting due to a lack of optimism amongst their people. Together we designed what they named the ‘Optimism Mindset’ program, a series of short virtual interventions based on neuroscience that were designed to improve mood and increase positivity. The mindsets of attendees were measured before and after each session and showed an incredible improvement in thinking. Prior to the sessions, participants reported a 90% negative mindset, but after most sessions, a 90% positive mindset. Optimism is an attitude or mindset that can be trained, and it will be a key factor in getting through the many long and difficult months ahead.
Well-being sets biased expectations; Optimism sets realistic perspectives
Optimism is considered to be the general attitude that fuels resilience, but there is an important difference between blind (or naïve) optimism and realistic optimism, or what we call Wise Optimism. Wise optimism is grounded in reality, which means that it improves one’s chances of dealing with setbacks and failures. As opposed to blind optimism, wise optimism is active, not passive. The person using wise optimism does not miss the negatives but instead disengages from problems that appear unsolvable and attends to those problems they can solve.
Using the old ‘how full is the glass’ analogy, wise optimism allows you to look at a glass and acknowledge that while it’s half empty, it’s also half full. It encourages you to put your focus on the fullness of the glass, to see the good amongst the bad, and to always be on the lookout for silver linings.
The model below illustrates how optimism can develop through a crisis. If we are not focused on developing or maintaining our sense of optimism amidst the chaos, then we are all at risk of dropping into a state of apathy, or even pessimism. Not only is this detrimental to our own individual health, but it also spells disaster within a workplace.
In a moment when we could all use some positivity, choosing wise optimism is how we’ll get there. Research shows that when people operate under more positive mindsets, performance in nearly every aspect of their lives improves. When a person wants to feel more optimistic about certain events, they can mentally zoom out from a momentary perspective to take a broader view. From that new broader perspective, they can think of a strategy that will not only enhance the experience of that moment they’re in, but also create a strategy for prolonging the state of positivity until after the present moment (or present crisis) has passed.
We all hope for longer, lighter days, global health, and greater social interactions. With a sense of wise optimism, we can believe with a real conviction that these will all return in due time.