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This is what optimists can teach you about dealing with stress

Positive psychology researcher Michelle Gielan has studied optimism and success for more than a decade, and she has found that those with an optimistic outlook are better equipped to deal with stress.

This is what optimists can teach you about dealing with stress
[Photo: Hybrid/Unsplash]

There are nights I’m sure I’m asleep before my head hits the pillow. As a working mother, I remember writing my book with my first baby crawling around the floor of our home office. These days, I comanage both our business and home with my husband, while continually striving to be present with our young son and daughter each day. I’m sure many of you relate all too well to the feeling of never having enough time.

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So many of us operate at full throttle and yearn for the idea of “work-life balance.” But I think that’s similar to hoping for a magical fairy godmother to show up and clean your house at night while you sleep. (Yes, these are the things I wish for.)

I think there’s no such thing as work-life balance. However, there is an incredibly advantageous mindset we can foster—whether you’re facing a major deadline at work or enjoying a middle-of-the-night, unexpected hangout with your 1-year-old. When you develop an optimistic mindset, you’ll be in a better headspace to manage burnout and depression. You’ll also increase your productive energy and will probably see more success throughout your career.

The optimists’ advantage

Optimism is a great tool for decreasing stress and can even give you back as much as five stress-free months a year. Recently, I partnered on a study with Frost Bank and found individuals with more optimism experience 145 fewer days of financial stress each year than pessimists.
We surveyed 2,000 adults nationwide and found that optimists are seven times more likely to experience high levels of financial well-being. They feel better about their money, no matter how much they make or have, and they’re significantly more likely to make positive choices about it.

We also found that optimists have met more of their goals—both personally and professionally. Those who are less optimistic, on the other hand, tend to believe that their goals are unachievable. Optimists are nearly twice as likely to meet their primary life goals, on average, and I’m not just talking about financial goals: 96% of optimists have changed careers to follow a passion, or expect to.

The link between optimism and success

The Frost study is just one of a multitude of studies that show optimism is a valuable attribute. For more than a decade, I’ve studied the connection between optimism and success. I’ve been fortunate to work with executives from some of the most forward-thinking companies to help foster an optimistic culture that drives business outcomes.

Together, we’ve seen a national insurance carrier increase gross revenues by 50% and managers improve team productivity by 31% in three weeks. A study I did with Harvard-trained researcher Shawn Achor also found that you’re 40% more likely to receive a promotion over the next year if you’re practicing optimism.

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Optimism, in my research, is the expectation of good things to happen and the belief that our behavior matters, especially in the face of challenges. Of course, it’s still essential to have common sense. Rational optimism means taking a realistic assessment of the present moment. It means maintaining the belief that you can put one foot in front of the other, take action, and overcome a challenge or reach a goal.

The steps to optimism

If you’re reading this and you don’t consider yourself to be an optimist, fear not. The most hopeful aspect of this research is that optimism can be learned. In just a few minutes a day, you can train your brain to see the world from a more positive lens.

Here are simple habits that anyone can adapt to become more optimistic:

1. Take a ‘now’ step: Our Frost survey showed that optimists don’t wait for the perfect, detailed plan. Instead, they try to accomplish their goals, even with a rough one. Research shows making and celebrating progress in small increments can make you more successful at meeting goals, whether financial or otherwise. A now step is the smallest meaningful action you can take in the face of a challenge. It reminds the brain that your behavior matters as you experience a win from completing it.

2. Focus on the good: Our mind focuses on the things that we’re stressed about. But we often need a little help to see the positive parts of our life that are worth celebrating. This is the fuel that keeps us going. Each day, take two minutes to write down three new, specific things you’re grateful for. This simple practice can change how you see the rest of your day as you get better at scanning for things to add to the list.

3. Expect the unexpected: Even optimists experience setbacks. But, they are more likely than pessimists to have recovered and learned from those setbacks. Optimists in our survey say learning from their mistakes fuels their optimism. So make a list of three of the most stressful events of your life, how you overcame them, and what you learned. Your resilient past can help boost your optimism.

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When my 1-year-old has me up in the middle of the night for three hours when I have work deadlines looming, I don’t worry about how tired I’ll be the next day. Instead, I put this research into practice. I spend time reflecting on all the simple things, like the way her hair smells of baby shampoo. That small gesture helps me approach challenges later that day with a more optimistic outlook.


Michelle Gielan is a positive psychology researcher and the author of Broadcasting Happiness: The Science Of Igniting And Sustaining Positive Change.

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