Learning to Think Like an Optimist

Resilience Pays Off during Tough Times

Posted Dec 07, 2011

No doubt, we are living through some very challenging times. Never before has our world faced the global economic, social, and psychological crises it faces today, and it's having a significant impact on many through added stress and strain on our minds and our bodies. In fact, the impact on women may be worse than men. According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, women are not only reporting more stress than men over money and the economy, they're also experiencing more stress-related symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, irritability, and depression. In addition, unchecked stress increases the risk for serious illnesses, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. It also can lead to other problems, such as infertility, ulcers, sleep disturbance, chronic fatigue, severe depression, overeating, memory loss, substance abuse, and lowered productivity. However, looking on the bright side (which is what this article is really about), there may be some merit to the saying, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." 

Although worries about job retention and growth opportunities represent the greatest fears I see in the career women I coach and mentor, recent research suggests that workers who are resilient--those who possess the ability to overcome challenges and turn them into opportunities--are more likely to be retained than those who are not. In a recent survey of over 500 senior executives representing 20 countries,1 results revealed that more than two-thirds (71%) of corporate leaders reported that resilience was "very" to "extremely important" in determining whom to retain. Another interesting finding was that respondents viewed women workers to be as resilient as men workers, and most importantly for women, these executives reported an investment in providing their female professionals with programs to further develop resilience.

From these results, the researchers concluded, "Resilience may be the new criterion for professional advancement. In the current world of economic uncertainty and intense competitiveness, organizations that instill resilience in their up-and-coming leaders will have a clear advantage. Like other skills, resilience can be learned. Leading organizations will provide high-performing women with a variety of experiences including training, mentoring and 'stretch' roles to increase their resilience and confidence, thereby preparing them to succeed in senior leadership positions."2

So what makes a person resilient? And how can someone build resilience?

According to Martin E. P. Seligman, commonly known as the father of positive psychology, the key is optimism. Through the development of questionnaires and an analysis of the content of verbatim speech and writing to assess subjects' "explanatory style" (optimistic or pessimistic), Seligman discovered that people who don't give up tend to interpret setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable. This led him to theorize that the best way to immunize people against depression, anxiety, and giving up after failure was to teach them to think like optimists. 

This can be accomplished in several ways, beginning with how you interpret and explain events that happen in your life. In other words, it's what you believe about what happens in your life that determines how you react to it rather than the event itself. So when you encounter a negative belief (i.e., I never get what I want), force yourself to do a reality check. Have you never gotten what you wanted? Ever? By looking at the factual basis for your beliefs, you can train yourself to turn that negative belief into a more realistic, positive one.

Another way to improve your outlook is to consider alternative causes for negative experiences. It's often the case that a bad experience is brought on not by one cause, but by many. In addition, it helps to keep things in perspective. For example, even if you are the sole cause of bad experience, is it a world-shattering catastrophe, or is it simply a bad thing that happened in your life?

Finally, resist the "all or none" mentality. If you convince yourself that because you failed once, you will always fail, you're likely to not try more than once. On the other hand, if you see it as an isolated failure (or even two or three) and believe that with perseverance you'll have a chance to succeed, then your behavior is likely to correspond to your new belief.

The truth is that disappointments and challenges are an inevitable part of life. So why not view them as opportunities to learn, grow, and improve? If you do, you're on the road to resilience and that's exactly where you want to be during tough times.

1 Research reported by Accenture, a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company.

2 Ibid.

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

Follow Dr. Bourg Carter on Facebook and Twitter.

Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

About the Author

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., psychologist and author of "High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout," specializes in the area of women and stress.

More Posts