Mon Feb 10 2020 Michael McQueen

We have all heard the painful clichés at the business conferences and read them in the self-help books – ‘the glass is half-full’, ‘look for the silver lining’. The sentiment of optimism is not one we are unfamiliar with in our modern world of self-help. Despite this, 1 in 7 Australians will experience depression in their lifetime and 1 in 4 will experience anxiety. 1 in 7 young people experience a mental health condition in a year.[1] The popular sentiment of optimism has not seemed to translate into a happier or more fulfilled society.

In theorising the necessity of tenacity in young people, Martin Seligman states, ‘Failure in itself is not catastrophic. It may deflate self-esteem for a while, but it is the interpretation of the failure that can be more harmful.’[2] He explains the need to develop a framework around challenges and setbacks that will sustain the individual through them – he is referring to optimism.

Seligman’s definition of optimism, in its relationship with tenacity and hardship, is not synonymous with the clichés we have come to know. It is not merely seeing the glass as half-full or looking for the silver lining around the clouds. He defines optimism as a ‘set of beliefs or assumptions about life’s causes’ – what he calls our ‘explanatory style’.[3]

Based on over two decades of research with over 1000 studies and half a million children and adults, Seligman has found that optimists habitually search for temporary and specific causes for hardships whereas pessimists assume permanent and pervasive causes are to blame.[4]

In other words, when optimists encounter disappointment, failure and setbacks, they perceive these as: [5]

  • Having a temporary impact. It takes time to make friends at a new school; my dad is in a bad mood today; tomorrow’s another day; things will get better
  • Being caused by something specific. I didn’t make the football team but that doesn’t mean I’m hopeless at all sports; I may have failed my mathematics exam but that doesn’t mean I’m dumb
  • Being something outside personal control. I wish my girlfriend hadn’t dumped me but there’s only so much I could have done to save the relationship.

It’s important to clarify that this third conclusion is not an excuse for shirking responsibility. Rather, optimists tend to have a balanced view of how much they have control over in life and don’t take responsibility for things they can’t influence.

In contrast, when a pessimist encounters disappointment, failure and setbacks, they perceive these as:[6]

  • Having a permanent impact. No-one is ever going to be my friend; I have the crankiest dad in the world; this is never going to get any better 
  • Being caused by something pervasive. I didn’t make the football team because I suck at sport; I flunked my mathematics exam because I’m not very smart 
  • A personal failure or flaw. No wonder my girlfriend dumped me because I wasn’t good enough for her … it’s all my fault.

Research has made it clear that optimism is an essential ingredient for tenacity – what Angela Duckworth refers to as ‘grit’. Duckworth states, ‘Grit depends on a kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again.’[7]

A cognitive science professor at MIT by the name of Laura Schulz goes one step further, suggesting that optimism is a better leading indicator of a young person’s future success than IQ. Her research indicates that whether a child believes their efforts matter or will make a difference is critically important to their outcomes in life.[8]

While an optimistic or pessimistic ‘explanatory style’ is formed in the early years of childhood, the good news is that there are specific things that can be done to foster the optimism necessary for tenacity now.

Drawing on work done by the Penn Prevention Program in cognitive therapy, here are four strategies for developing an optimism paradigm:[9]

1. Recognise. Sometimes referred to as ‘thought catching’, this is all about discerning the thoughts that enter your mind at the times you feel the worst.

2. Review. This is the evaluating step where you acknowledge that the things you say about yourself and a given situation may not be accurate or helpful. Sometimes referred to as ‘metacognition’, this second step is about calling these thoughts or words into question and gathering evidence by asking yourself ‘What is the evidence for this belief?’ and ‘What evidence is there that it isn’t true or reasonable?’. This second step can be the hardest for someone who has held a pessimistic view for a long time, as self-confirming evidence can be hard to shake.[10]

3. Re-explain. This third step involves generating more accurate or constructive explanations for when bad things happen so they can be used to challenge automatic reactions to adversity in future.

4. Re-frame. The final step is often referred to as ‘decatastrophising’. In other words, when things go wrong or threaten to, there is tremendous power in considering what the worst-case scenario is, the best-case scenario and, most importantly, the likely scenario based on previous experiences of hardship. If you get stuck dwelling on the worst-case scenario, the next step is to ask ‘Even if that happens, what would I do next?’ Immediately, the perspective of the situation becomes realistically hopeful and constructive.

In our current society, where the bad news of the world and the stress of work is constantly at our fingertips and buzzing in our back pockets, where competition is booming in the marketplace, and where job prospects are constantly changing, we need a good dose of healthy optimism. As one of the key predictors of success and happiness in the individual’s life, it is vital that we foster it in our everyday life by reframing our thinking about both setbacks and victories.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

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[1] 2020, ‘Statistics,’ Beyond Blue.

[2] Seligman, M. 2007, The Optimistic Child, Houghton Mifflin, New York, p. 45.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Duckworth, A. 2017, Grit, Vermilion, London, p. 174.

[5] Seligman, M. 2007, The Optimistic Child, Houghton Mifflin, New York, pp. 50–63.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Duckworth, A. 2017, Grit, Vermilion, London, p. 169.

[8] Murphy, B. 2017, ‘MIT Researchers Have Isolated A Strategy To Help Kids Grow Up To Be More Successful – But Most Parents Are Afraid To Do It’, Business Insider, 12 October.

[9] Seligman, M. 2007, The Optimistic Child, Houghton Mifflin, New York, pp. 134–136.

[10] Ibid., p. 198.