The difficulty of optimism
Optimism eludes me this morning as I look out my window and see fall already intruding on my brief summer here in Rexburg, ID. I find it challenging to enjoy the winter and hope for the spring, when eight months of cold awaits me.
Optimists would see the beauty in the reds, yellows, and oranges of autumn, but I only see the death of cells and life.
But the trees aren't dying, merely going through a cycle, and perhaps optimism lies in seeing the cycles of life. The seasons are a metaphor of optimism, the green promise of future rejuvenation masked in temporarily in red. If you can see the world through this lens, it actually changes your body and brain.
Optimism is a positive or hopeful outlook for the future, and it is connected with your stress levels in interesting ways. Specifically, optimism affects the level of the stress hormones in your body that can reek havoc on your health.
The neuroscience of optimism and stress
Humans have known of a connection for ages, but only recently are neuroscientists discovering what about optimism affects our bodies and why. PsychCentral reported yesterday on new findings out of Concordia University that reveal how optimism and pessimism each affect our ability to manage stress effectively. The key actually lies in the stability of cortisol, the stress hormone, not as much in the level or intensity.
So, the stability of cortisol levels, over time, seems most important to our health and how we cope with stress, and we oversimplify if we just say that stressed people have high cortisol levels. They have highly fluctuating levels of cortisol which creates stress and harmful effects.
The experiment required 135 people over the age of 60 to collect saliva samples five times a day in order to monitor cortisol levels for six years. The participants reported on their perceived levels of stress throughout their day. Assistants asked participants how frequently they felt stress.
Pessimists were found to have a higher baseline of stress throughout the day, but also a lot of fluctuation in the levels of cortisol, in addition to difficulties managing stressful situations. Their ability to handle difficult situations was compromised. On the other hand, the optimists were shielded in such situations and better able to cope with the high stress with stable levels of cortisol.
The findings indicate that optimists are better at handling stressful situations because their cortisol levels remain more stable. The key seems to be in the stability of the cortisol levels rather than just the amount of cortisol in the body.
Because I tend to be a pessimist, I assume that my cortisol levels are less than stable compared it to my wife, the optimist, who sees life through rose colored lenses. The research suggests that my wife probably has stable levels of cortisol.
This knowledge is significant in understanding how our bodies cope with stress, revealing that it is more complex than we thought.
Using the neuroscience to benefit the workplace
This information has obvious implications for the workplace, and Butch Ward reveals that, in surveys, one of the things that employees appreciate most in their managers is optimism. Genuine optimism, however, is difficult for a manager to convey without making it sound like simple happy talk.
Ward indicates that managers can be more effective in conveying genuine optimism, but this is a high level management skill, difficult to master. "Real leaders," he says "do not deny reality. In fact, the credibility of their optimism stems from the fact that they believe in the future despite the current reality."
Masking the truth of a difficult situation with positive, empty talk does not convey optimism to employees because they see it as hollow. Recognizing the reality of the current situation, while maintaining a positive outlook for the future, is the key.
Leaders can maximize this positive management skill by truly believing that the future will improve, a sincere knowledge that circumstances will become better. Managers can effectively manage employees by:
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By Darin L. Hammond
Writer for ZipMinis and owns ZipMinis Freelance Writing. Darin Publishes across the web on sites like Technorati, BC Blog, Blog Critics, Broowaha, Demand Media Studios, and Social Media Today. Google
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