Are Optimists Just Luckier than the Rest of Us?


DrivingWhen I was five years old I won a car. It was not actually a car that my parents could use, it was designed for use by very small children but it was powered by a car batter and reached speeds of 4 to 6 miles per hour! I won it by entering a contest to name a pair of roller skates that would be sold for use by children who wanted to roller skate indoors.  I suggested the name “Zippy. ”

Zippy Roller Skates were still being sold when my nephew was old enough to want to zip through his house.  Much to my sister’s and brother-in-law’s horror, I bought him a pair.  Come to think of it, I don’t remember ever seeing them again.

But by entering the contest and naming the skates, I had my first encounter with being lucky. I would drive around the neighborhood with all the other kids chasing after me. It was great fun, at least until the battery ran down.

I don’t suppose that I was an optimist then (I don’t really remember much from that age) but I am often accused of being one now – by co-workers and family members. Perhaps that early experience set me up to expect that good things will happen in my life. And this is characteristic of optimists. They expect good things to happen in their life.

Studies show that pessimists are actually more realistic than optimists. This is something that many friends who identify as pessimists have told me over the years and it turns out to be accurate. When pessimists predict that bad things are likely to happen, they often are making predictions that are similar to predictions made by actuarial professionals.  They are generally much closer to being realistic than optimists.

Optimists regularly predict that good things are more likely to happen than should happen according to actuarial science. What is interesting about that is that optimists regularly beat the odds. More good things happen TO THEM that would be predicted.

So are optimists just luckier than the rest of us? Do they expect good things to happen simply because of this luck, so that they are accurately predicting their life but it is just by chance that their life turns out to have good things happen?

It appears that the answer to this question is that optimists are actually doing something different in their lives that tips the odds in favor of having more good things happen.

To understand this, we need to more clearly define optimism. I use the framework that was articulated by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. in his book Learned Optimism. He noted that an optimism is an “attributional style.” This is different than positive thinking.  Optimists do not always expect that everything will be good for them. They attribute the good things in their life to something that they do, at least in part. And because they make the assumption that their efforts have an influence on bringing more good things in their life, they adopt a set of behaviors that makes it more likely that they will have more good things happen in their life.

For example, an optimist and a pessimist may experience the same event. To make this very simple, I will use the example of seeing a beautiful sunset.

The pessimist sees the sunset and enjoys it but makes the assumption that the encounter with a beautiful sunset is a random circumstance. Sometimes there is a sunset, sometimes it is cloudy. Noticing it was “lucky.”

The optimist sees the same sunset, and makes a slightly different assumption. The optimist notices that they chose to look when the beautiful sunset was occurring. Therefore, the optimist begins to put himself or herself in a position to look for sunsets more often.  They are less likely to miss a good sunset because of the attribution that actively looking for sunsets is an aspect of being able to see them. If it works for seeing beautiful sunsets, it will also work if the optimist looks for other beautiful things in his or her life, so the optimistic strategy actually increases the number of times the optimist enjoys beautiful things in his or her life.

This simple example demonstrates that an optimistic attributional style means that the optimist assumes that there is some personal choice that influences whether good things happen in his or her life.  He or she then repeats that behavior again, increasing the odds that the behavior will result in more good things happening. If repeating the behavior works, then he or she is likely to extend that behavior to other circumstances, which again increases the odds of good things happening.

An optimistic attributional style systematically increases the odds of good things happening.

Perhaps that is why optimists are more successful in their work lives and their family lives. They are finding connections between what they do and what goes well. They repeat this behavior and try it in more places in their life, increasing the probability of creating more good things in their lives.

It often appears, to me, that I have been very fortunate in my life. I have had many good things that have happened.  Perhaps the experience of winning a car early in my life set me up to make a connection between what I did and a good thing that happened to me that set me on a path to be ready and willing to take advantage of opportunities that have brought so many good things into my life.

Perhaps you can do this in your life too!


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