Getting the Balance: How to Be a Realistic Optimist at Work

When you think of work, “optimism” might not be the first word that comes to mind, but it plays a huge role in your corporate wellness, and overall wellbeing. In his book Learned Optimism, world renowned psychologist Martin Seligman notes that optimistic people:


  • Are physically healthier and suffer less depression.
  • Are persistent, resilient and get better results.
  • Are not overwhelmed by adversity.
  • Rebound quickly following defeats.
  • Cope well with frustration, rejection and stress.
  • Do not dwell on or punish themselves over failures.
  • Maintain confidence and determination following setbacks.


However, Rachel Clements, BSc Hons, M Psych, MAPS, co-founder and Director of Psychological Services and Principal Organisational Psychologist at the Centre for Corporate Health, points out that a balance is needed between seeing the glass as half-full, and overfilling the glass with cheery expectations. According to Clements, being overly optimistic isn’t useful as ‘we may not see a potential problem, not take responsibility for things that we should or rely too much on wishful thinking. The extreme optimist may also view themselves as having no faults and brilliant in every respect. What we aim for instead is a level of “healthy optimism” where the “healthy optimist” is able to balance taking on too much or too little responsibility and balance being pessimistic and optimistic when it is useful, depending on the situation.’


So how do you achieve the right balance of optimism and pessimism?


1. Take up relaxing activities: Clements explains, ‘Undertaking activities such as regular exercise, yoga, pilates, mindfulness or mediation can provide us with a sense of space whereby we are not processing intellectual information so quickly, we are less distracted by the external world and we are able to tune in to our body and listen to what it is telling us. This assists us in moving our attention from our head to our heart. In making this shift we may be able to more easily detect how we are feeling and what we need to do get back on track.’


2. Be conscious of balancing your energy levels throughout the day: ‘If you have had a busy day with long hours and demanding work,’ Clements details. ‘Make sure you do something during the day (such as getting out of the office at lunch time, even if it’s for only 15-30 minutes) or doing something after work (such as exercise, meeting up with a friend or a going to bed early) to replenish your energy levels.’


3. Choose your words: Clements warns, ‘Be careful of perfectionistic self-talk such as when using phrases like “I must” or “I should” or “he has to” or “she needs to”. Ask yourself, are implicit expectations and inflexible rules dominating your thinking? How else could you frame your statements so that they are less emotionally charged (for example “I prefer” or “I choose” or “he could consider” or “she may like to know”).


4. Be realistic, but notice good things: ‘Learn to set realistic goals and recognise and celebrate your successes,’ Clements advises. ‘Become an expert on knowing what you can control and what you can’t. Save your energy for the things you can influence, such as how you go about your work, and learn to let go of the things you cannot control such as other people’s behaviour. Let’s face it, much of what we actually experience in life is outside of our control.’


5. Practise makes perfect: Clements recommends, ‘Practise optimistic thinking by making a conscious effort to think of one positive thing every time you find yourself focused on a negative thought or judgement. Or, keep a diary of the positive things that you did or that happened today, to help develop a broader thinking style.’

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