Understanding Optimism

The Happiness Advantage

A group of psychologists led by Martin Seligman (including Shawn Achor and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly) have spent the past several decades studying “Positive Psychology”. In short, Positive Psychology studies how “typical” individuals can become highly effective, content, and successful individuals.

According to their research, perhaps the most important aspect of both happiness and success is “optimism”.

By optimism, they do not mean “the glass is half full”. Instead, an optimist is someone who believes 1) that problems are temporary and 2) effort can reduce or eliminate problems. In contrast, a pessimist believes that problems are permanent and nothing he or she can do will minimize them.

As you can see, the difference here is huge. An optimist can overcome challenges and difficulty while a pessimist becomes a victim of them.

While everyone is born with a certain level of optimism or pessimism, the Positive Psychology research has revealed something incredibly exciting: individuals can engage in certain activities to increase their “baseline” of optimism. These activities include:

  1. Writing about or discussing positive experiences everyday
  2. Doing acts of kindness daily
  3. Exercise
  4. Meditation
  5. Expressing Gratitude

People who engage in these and other similar exercises develop increased optimism that remains in place even if they stop or reduce the exercises.

Since we are always looking for ways to help our young sailors grow at American Seafarers, this research has been quite inspirational to us. By coaching our young crew through progressives set of challenges, and having them write about and discuss their experiences, we believe a significant amount of self-esteem and self-worth are developed and in turn their functioning optimism.

We structure our program to help our seafarers ritualize some of these exercises. We encourage journal writing, genuine teamwork (which inherently include gratitude and acts of kindness, and thankfulness), and time to think about the day. Of course, the kids get regular exercise and discover activities that they enjoy enough to continue after American Seafarers that will keep them active.