An Argument for Optimism


Creative Commons License photo credit: caseywest 

Our guest today is Douglas Cartwright, from "Living Words." Douglas, 36, is the CEO and Primary Coach of Living Words Coaching and Training.

He is an expert in cognitive-behavioural change techniques with over 15 years experience in helping people make significant personal transformations.

He’s trained in the USA, New Zealand and the UK and is an Associated Certified Meta-Coach and a Neuro-Linguistic Programming Trainer.

His expertise is in helping people untie their psychological knot, renew their minds and live their words so that they actually get to do what they say they want to do. He trains people to access their personal ‘genius’ states for heightened personal effectiveness.
                              An Argument for Optimism

In this article I intend to present some solid reasons for adopting an optimistic attitude and some techniques for doing so. Even so, it is my conviction that each of us has to find his or her own reasons for adopting this way of thinking. After all, you’re the expert on you, right? 

You may ask “Why would anyone not want to think optimistically?” Well, I think there is a general misunderstanding of what it means to do so and there are always the ‘realists’ who just ‘see the world as it is’. (Research shows that realists might be right more often but they also lead unhappier lives…take your pick.) 

The first place I want to start is with the value of taking on an optimistic thinking style.  Optimism is defined “as the tendency to expect favourable outcomes in any enterprise” or, to put it more colloquially: ”to expect the best”. So it’s an attitude, a mind-set that interprets events in a certain style. 

Winston Churchill said: “I am an optimist because it doesn’t seem worth being anything else.” 

There is much wisdom in this statement. Let’s add to that with another quote:

“Optimism is the foundation of courage.” 

A little further down I will add for a perspective skewed in favour of optimism but tempered with some critical thinking and a healthy does of ego strength for facing the world ‘as it is’. 

But consider those two quotes. In fact, consider that if optimism is expecting the best (or at least expecting that a favourable outcome is possible) then without optimism the position one might assume is that of failing before one starts, or at least that ones chances of succeeding are diminished before one even starts. I think that is what Winston meant. And “he who never made a mistake probably never made anything…!” 

Additionally, optimism is said to be a pre-requisite for courage. Courage is action in the face of fear and believing you have a chance of succeeding has to be an essential component to bothering to try in the first place.

So there is a cold hard rational argument for adopting an optimistic thinking style. It increases your chance of success. 

Now, notice I did NOT say “you must be an optimist”. There is a difference between changing your perceived identity: what you perceive as ‘who you are’ and actually learning how to think a new way. One is considerably easier than the other!

Optimistic thinking is a process, a style, a way of thinking. Just as you learned to do mathematics you can learn to think this way. If you just think of it as learning to use a tool to achieve a particular result, it can help. You don’t have to give up thinking about the worst case scenario, in fact, I encourage you to still use it – in balance!  Donald Trump used to say that if he could cope with the worst case scenario of a purchase, then the risk was worth taking!

Putting it bluntly, if you don’t think you can succeed because your thinking patterns are filtering out all possibilities of success – then you have a problem.

“If you think you can or you can’t – you’re right” said Henry Ford. 

It was said: “the optimists are right. So are the pessimists. So it’s up to you to decide which one you’re going to be.”  

“You can if you think you can” said Norman Vincent Peale. 

Are – you – getting –  this – yet? It’s about perception and your willingness to consider that something that you want, might happen. It’s about accepting the possibility, however faint at first that things might turn out mostly or totally in line with your values, your desires.  

You don’t have to go all Pollyanna to do this. It doesn’t have to be all good or nothing, everything’s sunshine or rain. You can accept even 10% that something good might happen and work with it. I know that must is a dirty word amongst CBT practitioners but some things are worth considering as a must.  

You must eat, or eventually you die. You must treat people well or eventually they will leave you to it. Etc. Etc. Etc. 

And you must develop possibility thinking that things can work out. The biggest irony of all is the research on optimism done by ground-breaking positive thinking researcher Martin Seligman indicates that optimism comes greatly from learning to limit the damage of a perceived negative event.

He said that people who think pessimistically take things: 

Personally (it’s MY fault)

Pervasively (it affects most or all areas of my life)

Permanently (it’s going to last forever) 

Whereas those who think optimistically do the opposite: 

It’s not personal/about who I am

It’s not pervasive; it only affects this particular area of my life

It’s not permanent; it’ll be over by xyz. 

In fact, there is a little known personal development technique called Indexing which you can read about on the main website which can help you nail events down so specifically that you start to realise they couldn’t possibly affect EVERY part of your life ALL the time.  

I admit, there are certain life events that do have a massive effect but as depression often comes from feeling powerless, any remnant of control you can retain will help you.

Paul Stoltz gives some questions in his book Adversity Quotient: 

What evidence is there than you have no control?

What evidence is there that this has to affect every area of your life?

What evidence is there that this has to last any longer than necessary? 

He also asks a number of additional questions about how much of the blame you should take responsibility for, and what part of solving the problem are you going to take responsibility for.

The point being is that if you can use these processes to set setbacks (!) in their proper context, you don’t have to over think it and collapse with despair. 

The person who says it’s not as bad as it seems – might be right!

Visit and sign up for our mailing list. You’ll receive links to articles that help deal with procrastination, perfectionism, and positive thinking, and product suggestions.

 Follow Doug on Twitter and sign up at Living Words for a 7 part e-course, How to Stop Feeling Stuck and Start and download his free 61 page e-book, on Overcoming Procrastination Effectively. 

I have an awesome article at Jenn Smith's blog Reach Our Dreams today. We'd love it if you stopped by and said hello!

{ 15 comments… add one }

  • Topi May 19, 2010, 10:50 pm

    My friend’s Mum used to say, when we experienced a setback, “at least you’ve still got both your arms and legs.” I appreciate there could be circumstances where this comment doesn’t apply. But, in the majority of instances, it’s very useful to just put things in perspective – things could be worse, so now lets see how we can sort this particular situation out…not a bad way to approach life.
    .-= Topi´s last post…5 lessons I’ve learned from my children =-.

  • Wilma Ham May 19, 2010, 10:57 pm

    Words, thoughts, how powerful they are.
    I love this “to expect the best”.
    I think I have been blessed with parents who used optimistic language and I am blessed that I picked that up from them.
    I do see the bright sides of situations, camping in the rain for 4 weeks would otherwise have not been that much fun and I would have wasted 4 weeks of holiday with gloomy thoughts. Spare me, why make it worse?
    Thank you Douglas and Tess, this way of using words always will make life beautiful and not a day wasted. xox Wilma
    .-= Wilma Ham´s last post…Money and water, you can think shortage or abundance. =-.

  • Betsy Wuebker May 20, 2010, 5:45 am

    I’m a glass full kind of gal, except for when I’m slamming it down in favor of deciding later. :D Seriously, though, it’s everyone’s decision as to how they go through life. For me, optimism offers a life filled with possibility. Who could choose otherwise for long?
    .-= Betsy Wuebker´s last post…What I Learned from Motherhood =-.

  • Jannie Funster May 20, 2010, 8:47 am

    I was a little down last week over frustration with a song I was working on, but I bounced back after a coule days. If I fnd myself heading down such a muddy path of feeling blue in the future, I will remember Stolz’s wisdom via Doug here today…

    It IS only temporary!
    I DO have control over it!
    It is not my WHOLE life!

    Great to meet you Doug — Tess does bring the best stuff here to her blog. Thanks!!

    .-= Jannie Funster´s last post…Let’s Drink Up The Stars (lyrics draft) =-.

  • Frank S. Robinson May 20, 2010, 5:53 pm

    Those interested might wish to know about my book, THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which covers a very broad range of subject areas and substantively answers the salient points of the familiar pessimist “litany.” See
    .-= Frank S. Robinson´s last post…Property, egalitarianism, socialism =-.

  • Evita May 20, 2010, 7:02 pm

    Hi Doug – great, great article!

    And you don’t have to convince me twice to think optimistically. You know, there was a time in my life that I used to consider myself a “realistic optimist” – ha, I chuckle at myself now hearing that.

    First off, I no longer believe in a pre-set or defined reality. We truly do make it as we go, as long as we don’t get stuck in the illusion of the “system” and think that is how life is.

    And yes, today being optimistic is not a per event basis thing for me, as you said it is a way of thinking, it is a process and to me a way of life, that I frankly could not imagine any other way. So I wholeheartedly agree with Churchill ;)

    P.S. Tess, awesome guest!
    .-= Evita´s last post…Old Journeys End With New Priorities =-.

  • Tony Single May 20, 2010, 9:51 pm

    The cynic in me covered its ears, squeezed its eyes shut, and went, “LA LA LA LA LA!” That got old quick, so it shut up and read the rest of this article any way. :P

    I’d be lying if I said I agreed with everything you’ve written here, but dang do you make a persuasive argument! Thanks for taking the time! :)

  • Cheryl Paris May 21, 2010, 1:25 am

    Hi Tess and Doug,

    We know that passion is important to achieve goals in life. But where does that passion come from…? From being Optimistic…. So firstly we have to begin to think positive .

    Negative thinking is simply a learned habit, an addiction that is fed by a toxic daily diet of bad news, unfortunate events and tales of personal traumas of others. We need to exercise this song from few years ago: “Don’t Worry Be Happy”

    Cheryl Paris
    The Acorn Coach Blog
    .-= Cheryl Paris´s last post…Act Now: Why You Should Never Wait =-.

  • Douglas Cartwright May 21, 2010, 1:35 am

    Thanks for all your comments, especially to Tony for uncovering his ears for a little while (!)

    I actually coach people to develop particular thinking styles so ironically its becomes important for me to learn how to do them myself. My predominant thinking style (in times of stress) was not optimism so I have had to create a persuasive case for learning that style (thinking styles become dominant simply because they seem more valuable or familiar than the alternative).

    The two things that swung it for me were the fact that with pessimism as a dominant style (and I do believe it is just as useful as optimism – in the right order – second!) was that I was failing before I started, and that optimism gives me a competitive advantage as optimists tend to keep going longer (and there are stats (lies and stastics?) to back them up.

    If anyone is interested in developing stronger thinking styles (to get more organised, less pessimistic, more future orientated) come to my site and talk with me about a free explore your breakthrough session.

    Look forward to meeting you.


  • Hilary May 21, 2010, 2:55 am

    Hi Doug and Tess – great to meet you .. I have to count my blessings for being optimistic and always believing things will get better, or easier, … or that life is great and I’m loving it. Certain times life is a little tough – as now – but it’ll be fine.

    The more we complain and whine .. the more negativity we bring into our lives – thank goodness that’s not me .. and if I’m in a conversation with someone .. I’ll always try and turn the conversation to another more positive aspect, or explanation as to why something’s happening, rather than carry on with the negativity or pessimistic approach ..

    If we can accept where we’re at .. then we can climb out .. not easy for some .. but possible if their attitude and approach changes ..

    Thank you – have great weekends .. Hilary
    .-= Hilary´s last post…Dumbarton and Corgarff Castles =-.

  • Sara May 21, 2010, 11:18 am

    Tess — Thanks for sharing Doug.

    Doug — I loved this post. For most of my life, I saw myself as a pessimist. I never thought I could change this belief…it was stuck to me like a Scarlet Letter. Then I got older and being a pessimist became very tiring.

    I began to change my way of thinking. I slowly began to release my belief that I am totally in control of my world and everything that happens in it, which in the old me meant only bad things happening. As I learned to let go of this control, I found it was easier to see and acknowledge the positive and happy things in my life.

    I still fall back into it occasionally, but I’m now able to see it as a temporary state of being, which I can change. It is no longer the Scarlet Letter branding me permanently a pessimist:~)
    .-= Sara´s last post…One Cute Squirrel =-.

  • vered | blogger for hire May 21, 2010, 12:59 pm

    I like the idea that a person can teach themselves to think more optimistically about situations. I always assumed that you are born either an optimist or a pessimist and that there’s nothing much you can do about it.
    .-= vered | blogger for hire´s last post…Do You Believe That “Retail Is For Suckers?” =-.

  • Joy May 21, 2010, 9:51 pm

    Hi Tess,
    Thank you for opening up your space to Doug.

    Hi Doug,
    I am an optimist..I call it “butterflies and glitter”…I can apply it to any situation and have done so my entire life. The naysayers around me might say what if X, Y, Z happen…and I say “what if” what if X,Y, and Z do happen, then so what will I die? Nope, then let’s look at what I’ve gained from the experience. Truly there is a positive to every situation if I allow myself to be open enough to see it, and to stand in faith, not let fear redirect me.
    I was born with this attitude. I didn’t have a great childhood, I’ve had some less than wonderful experiences in adulthood, but my faith is strong, and my genuine love of people and the world is strong, so I am able to look at each interaction, each situation and celebrate the good. Over time I learned how to learn from and then release the “bad”. I expect that everything will work as it’s meant to, and it does…
    .-= Joy´s last post…Fearless Fun Friday: Dancing on the Dock…. =-.

  • Keith Davis May 22, 2010, 5:00 am

    Hi Tess
    “Why would anyone not want to think optimistically?”
    Good question – but perhaps we are what we are.
    My wife is the optimist, I’m the pessimist and between us we make things work.
    Half full, half empty – not sure if we ever change.
    .-= Keith Davis´s last post…Laugh and the world… =-.

  • Dr Ben Mead @ CBT Guildford August 9, 2011, 2:05 pm

    Tess, great article! And I think you’ve clarified a misconception about CBT. Many believe that the process of CBT is to inform the self that their thoughts are wrong, and to simply think more positively. Rather CBT is about recognising and accepting ones thoughts but seeing there may be a more balanced, less harsh alternative to them. This can work with pessimism – pessimistic thought are recognised for having evidence, but evidence against them should be acknowleged and in the process enable one to observe things more optismistically.


Leave a Comment

Next Post:

Previous Post:

Your Fearless Life: Making It Happen
Take Your Fear and Shove It
A Course on Love
Courage Coaching
Welcome! I'm Tess Marshall and I’m Passionate about supporting people who want to lead a fearless and bold life.
More about Tess