The difficulty of optimism
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
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
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:
- Accepting and discussing the current reality. Leaders should not be afraid to discuss the negative in the present situation. The workers themselves know best what the reality is, and masking the truth will diminish confidence and optimism.
- Be honest in conveying your own fears in the present. This will help your staff deal honestly with the problems at hand, but also assist them in seeing why you have hope for future changes.
- Avoid dwelling on the past. Many managers hunt for blame and negativity in the past to explain the present, but this emphasizes failures and problems. Recognize and learn from mistakes, but don't dwell on them.
- Carefully lay out your vision for future prosperity. Convincing employees to buy into your positive outlook for the future will instill optimism, which we know helps them manage stress. Make the plan specific and sell it to the workers. To do this, you must really believe in the future vision.
- Communicate the essential role the staff plays in realizing the vision of the future, and specifically ask them for their help. They are the ones who will change the direction of the company, and you need their help. Let them know this.
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Would you say you are an optimist or a pessimist? Somewhere in between?
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