Are you a realistic optimist?

If you admit to being over 40, you probably remember the movie Pollyanna, the story about a little girl who saw everything through rose-colored glasses. The phrase “You’re being Pollyannish” was coined to describe someone who naively sees only the positive side of a situation. You know those kind of people. The ones who are always smiling. The ones who always have a cheerful word, no matter what’s going on around them. The ones who never have a bad thing to say about another, and always walk with a bounce in their step. You know, the ones who are, well, annoying.

It’s as if the frustrating, negative, painful aspects of life can’t touch them. They only feel the ups of the ups and downs, the highs of the highs and lows. I don’t understand them. I once walked into a retail store on my lunch hour, brooding about a previous incident at the office that rubbed me the wrong way, and was greeted by an enthusiastic attendant who, stepping a little too close into my space, chirped a cheery “It’s a great day — how can I help you?” with a smile so sincere that I felt a stab of pain in aversion to the overflowing joy. I turned around and walked out. If I’m in a mood, I can hardly make eye contact with these eternal optimists, for fear their wide-eyed brightness will rub off on my foul state of mind…one that I’m happily relishing in the moment. Especially if I haven’t yet had my morning coffee.

There’s a reason Pollyannish optimists get under our skin. It’s one thing to be optimistic, and it’s another thing to be realistically optimistic. Optimists of the naive sort tends to gloss over the negative aspects of life and lacks experience and wisdom. Without these it becomes difficult to respect them or trust their reliability. They are hard to relate to and we tend to close up and not want to enter an authentic relationship with them because they just don’t get it. Realistic optimism, on the other hand, is the ability to expect success rather than failure, see opportunities instead of threats, and expecting the future to bring positive change, in light of negative circumstances. Realistic optimists know how to make others feel accepted by showing they understand that life can be tough — but they don’t let the tough times take them down. It’s not that realistic optimists don’t see the downside of situations; they’re just able to look ahead with confidence that things are going to turn out all right. Realistic optimism is a competency of emotional intelligence and is a far cry from being Pollyannish.

“If we define optimism broadly as the tendency to maintain a positive outlook, then realistic optimism is the tendency to maintain a positive outlook within the constraints of the available “measurable phenomena situated in the physical and social world” — Sandra L. Schneider

People who possess this valuable skill are able to think clearly and stay focused when under pressure, restrain negative responses that will cause the situation to deteriorate, and manage impulsive feelings even in trying moments. In effect, they can adjust their emotional responses to fit the situation at hand. Without this competency, we tend to react impulsively, are quick to anger, can be defensive, and may become agitated, depressed or sullen when faced with stress on the job or at home.

Wondering which you are? Here are 5 traits of a realistic optimist:

* · You view negative circumstances as surmountable

* · You perceive setbacks as a challenge rather than a sign of defeat

* · You operate from a mindset of taking action vs. inaction from fear of failure

* · You recognize that unpleasant events are temporary

* · You temper negative self-talk with a knowing that you will succeed

Exercising realistic optimism can great affect your productivity and ability to enjoy your daily work. Realistic optimism is not a personality trait but a learned behavior that can be developed. One way to increase this competency is to practice gratitude. A study was done by psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough on the impact gratitude has on our well-being. They put people into three groups — one group with instructions to simply keep a daily journal, no specifications as to content. The second group was to only record negative experiences, and the third to make a list of things they were thankful for. The results? Those who daily expressed their gratitude experienced less stress and depression and had higher levels of enthusiasm, energy, and determination, concluding that those in the third group were more likely to make progress toward the achievement of personal goals and exhibit an optimistic view of life.

“To say we feel grateful is not to say that everything in our lives is necessarily great. It just means we are aware of our blessings.” — Robert Emmons

If you struggle with an outlook of realistic optimism, try tuning into your self-talk about the adversities in your life. Take notes on the how you hear yourself describing your setbacks–and your responses to them. Dispute the negative beliefs and look for evidence of successes, avoiding phrases like “this always happens to me” or “I’ll always fail at this”. A great resource for developing realistic optimism is Martin Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism.

An optimist, in the words of the late Walter Winchell, an American newspaper and radio commentator, is “…a man who gets treed by a lion but enjoys the scenery.”

How’s the scenery from your tree?