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Optimism in a time of distress

As we pull together as a nation struggling to come to terms with the health and financial crises we face, is there any room at all for optimism? Lise-Mari Crafford investigates.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride for us South Africans – personally, professionally and financially. Writing this from lockdown, in the hope that by the time you read it the situation will be stable enough for President Cyril Ramaphosa to un-pause the economy, I am trying to make sense of how I feel. 

Amid concern for my family, friends, colleagues, clients and the broader community, and the daily negative news headlines, there are some reasons to be positive: from our president’s display of statesmanship, to the rallying of communities, charities, corporates and musicians to support health workers and help those in need, to the feeling that we are all pulling together to get through this. Sure, this may feel like clutching at straws in the face of adversity, and the tragic loss of life, but history reveals that we will be able to battle our way through, and optimism can help us get to the other side.

Realistic optimism helps us achieve our goals

Control is key

“Optimism” is defined as “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something” and “a mental attitude reflecting a belief or hope that the outcome of some specific endeavour will be positive, favourable, and desirable” – feelings that all seem noticeably, and understandably, absent at present. 

Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has a theory that explains why we are feeling out of sorts. He suggests there is a direct link between control and optimism. According to Seligman, if we feel more in control of our lives, we tend to be happier, healthier and more optimistic about the future. COVID-19 and the lockdown situation have robbed us of our sense of control, which is partly why we are struggling to adopt a positive outlook. 

There are some easy strategies to help us regain control and improve our state of mind to help us through this incredibly difficult time. Sometimes referred to as the “grandmother factor”, doing more of the things that your grandmother would advise, like eating well, getting enough rest, and connecting with family and friends, can go a long way towards regaining control and feeling more optimistic. 

This basic self-help method may help you on an individual level, but research has shown that while people tend to be optimistic about their own future, they can at the same time be extremely pessimistic about the future of their country. Tali Sharot, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, has popularised the idea of an innate optimism bias built into the human brain. She believes we are wired to focus on the most positive interpretation of events, and are optimistic, rather than realistic, when considering our individual future. Unfortunately, however, according to her, we don’t have the same rosy outlook when it comes to our feelings about our nation’s future. 

Here, Seligman’s control theory helps to provide clarity: He explains that individual optimism is easier to conjure up than “societal optimism” as we are in direct control of our own lives, but not the destiny of the nation. 

The results of a European Commission Eurobarometer survey illustrate this point: When asked about their expectations for the future, most of the respondents anticipated that their own job or financial situation would improve or stay the same, yet they expected the economic situation in their home country to get worse or stay the same. An interesting dichotomy. 

Other surveys and studies conducted before this pandemic saw sentiment spiralling downwards, confirming that many of us feel very pessimistic about the future state of the world. This is despite the fact that we are, on average, healthier, wealthier, freer and have a more peaceful existence than our ancestors – which, in theory, should give us hope. 

As US professor of international relations and journalist David Rothkopf wrote: “We do not live in a perfect world. But we live in a perfectible one. History shows that, over the long run, we collectively have made progress work.” This is a reason to be a bit more optimistic about the future, as long as we work hard to extend this trend. 

Reality check

The ability to move beyond difficulties is critical to success – and indeed to getting through the current crisis – but can present a problem when perspectives become divorced from reality, or when positives are overly emphasised, and negatives are brushed under the table. This can happen in a wide range of situations, from politics to the military to business – to our own finances. Behavioural scientists explain that to remain optimistic about outcomes, we dismiss bad news, readily incorporate good news, and cherry-pick information to confirm our views.

it is worthwhile adopting realistic optimism to propel us through

This is the darker side of optimism, also termed “irresponsible optimism” or “blind optimism”. Blind optimists have so much faith in their view of the future that they often fail to plan for less positive outcomes. They are also guilty of excessive “optimism bias”. We’ve seen irresponsible optimism come crashing down in the US, where a more realistic and pragmatic approach from President Donald Trump may have seen this pandemic being better contained. Different from its cousin “hope”, which is an emotion, optimism needs to be based on fact and analysis at times like these. 

To avoid falling into the blind optimism trap, we should try to get a balanced view by seeking perspectives contrary to our own and ensuring our decisions are grounded in reality – i.e. what we should aim for is “realistic optimism”. Realistic optimists accept that there are challenges; they endeavour to understand the action they need to take to achieve what they want, and accept that there are things that cannot be changed. 

We can take some good lessons from sports professionals: For them, optimism and confidence that they can achieve their goal are key, but it is also important for them to take a realistic look at what they may need to change to deliver quality performance. 

Why optimism helps

Studies show that when people are future-oriented (as optimists tend to be), they think creatively about what a future world will look like, and how they can get there. And then they make a plan to make it happen. So, although we may feel inclined to ditch optimism altogether in the face of our current situation, it is worthwhile adopting realistic optimism to propel us through – both in our individual and collective activities, and in investing. Here are three reasons why: 

1. Optimism supports creative thinking and the generation of new ideas

In a world where we have a health crisis and have come to an economic standstill, optimism will help individuals and businesses alike to think differently about how they can support their communities, and how they can position themselves for a future that may look very different from what we knew just a few weeks ago. 

2. Optimism produces a tendency to act

Optimists see the future as holding opportunity and they want to act to prepare for it and make it happen. This driving force will be critical in the coming weeks and months. 

3. Optimism supports persistence in a chosen course of action that is difficult

Things are tough, and it’s going to take a long time for them to get better. It may feel very difficult to persevere – with a struggling business, with a poorly performing investment, with a goal that will take longer than expected to achieve. Optimism will help you get there. 

Optimism and investing

It could be said that investing is in itself an activity grounded in optimism: Essentially, you have your eye on a positive future outcome. And optimism and pessimism themselves are market-makers: driving prices up and down each day based purely on what investors are feeling, rather than the reality of how a company is performing. 

Blind optimism lures investors in droves; pessimism creates opportunities for value investors. Realistic optimism helps us achieve our goals.

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