Saturday, September 29, 2012

Optimism: Fill your well!

An increasing series of medical studies reveal new ways that optimism has direct links with better health.  It has been shown to result in better postoperative outcomes, recovery from cancer and chemotherapy, shorter hospital stays, and increased longevity. A recent study over a 8 year period on nearly 100,000 women reveals that those who had positive future expectations as well as low levels of cynicism or hostility to others were statistically shown to have lower rates of newly developed heart disease or cancer.  And although there is no direct biological model which has been shown linking positive attitude to these health outcomes, the evidence demonstrates a powerful correlation.

But what does that mean for you and me?

As a long time self-described realist, pessimist, and cynic of humankind, I've gone through most of my life developing a shell and an outlook to anticipate and prepare for the shocks in life.  My paradigm changed completely when I realized that I may have prevented a few minor catastrophes, but I probably ruined countless relationships and interactions.  I was not a very pleasant person to be around, and I didn't enjoy who I was either!

I've learned from someone close to me that rather than staring at the horizon for rain clouds that may not come, it's better to enjoy the day while the sun is still out. Tony Dungy, retired coach of the Indianapolis Colts, recounts a quote, "What's down in your well will come up in the bucket." In other words, even when storms come, developing a positive outlook on life and the future ingrains resilience and allows you to better enjoy the days of your life--in good times and bad.  

Although some people are by nature optimistic, many (like myself) can learn by practice to "fill their well."  Dungy recommends being disciplined in your approach to each day of your life and accomplishing the things of your dreams by first being aware of your thoughts.  There are countless sports analogies which demonstrate why it's important to focus on what you want to happen--and not on what you hope to avoid.  For example, ask any golfer who hits a poor shot into a lake what they were thinking about before their shot.  Most likely, they were thinking of avoiding the lake.

Likewise, focus on the things that you hope will occur.  You won't always rise to the level of expectations you have for yourself or others, but setting low expectations doesn't lead to satisfaction and prevents you from rising above your situation.

Application:
1.  Develop an awareness of your thoughts and reactions to good and bad situations this week.  Keep a log.
2.  Avoid overly negative people if possible.  If you can't avoid them, embrace Peter Bregman's approach from the Harvard Business Review.
3.  Regularly develop and ground yourself.  Tony Dungy fills his well by believing in God's promises as demonstrated in Hebrews 11. Find strength and promise in someone or something other than yourself.  Live a beautiful life. 

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