Monday Mornings with Madison

Looking for the Bright Side in Dark Times

Word Count: 1,342
Estimated Read Time: 5 ½ min.

There are a multitude of idioms, platitudes, clichés and sayings about staying positive in tough times.

Let’s look at the bright side.  Every cloud has a silver lining.  See the glass as half full instead of half empty.  When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.  Hope against hope.  Things have a way of working out for the best.  There is light at the end of the tunnel.  Keep your chin up.  Hang in there.  When one door closes, another one opens.  The optimist sees the rose and not its thorns; the pessimist stares at the thorns, oblivious to the rose.  No winter lasts forever and no spring skips its turn.

The list goes on and on.  But perhaps Helen Keller said it best, when she explained why it is important to look for the good in bad times:  “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement.”

However, this push to focus on the good is not a modern mantra.  The wisdom of seeking the good in every situation dates back thousands of years.  Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher from around the 4th century BC, said “Be careful what you water your dreams with… Water them with optimism and solutions and you will cultivate success.”  Even some 2 ½ millennia ago, big thinkers understood the benefits of optimism and positivity.

Why do so many expressions talk about making the best of a bad situation?  Perhaps it is because everyone – even the rich, famous and powerful – face challenges, adversity and trials at some point in their lives.  And in a really major crisis, everyone suffers.  So most people will need a positive outlook to get through a time of strife, hurt, instability and uncertainty.   For example, Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, was a multi-millionaire and world famous when he was fired from his position there as CEO.  He experienced dark times even though he was already very wealthy and successful.  Adversity is an equal opportunity harasser that overlooks none.

Silver Lining Mentality Produces a Wealth of Benefits

More importantly, these adages serve a purpose.  They remind us that it helps to keep an optimistic and positive outlook because it has been proven to benefit our mental and physical health.  Indeed, over 100 scientific studies have looked at and attempted to measure the impact of optimism vs. pessimism on people’s lives.   Not only did pessimism cause people to lose heart and give up, it also made them more susceptible to depression, more likely to underachieve, more prone to passivity or helplessness when confronted with a stressful situation, more liable to under-perform at sport when faced with stress or defeat during a game, and more likely to die from a heart attack following an initial coronary event.  On the other hand, people who opted to look for the good in a bad situation and adopted an optimistic approach in life were healthier, less likely to fall prey to depression, and had stronger immune system responses to illness.  Optimists and those who find the good in every situation pay more attention to information that reduces health risks.

Case in point.  A study by Dr. Lisa Aspinwall, Associate Professor at the University of Utah, found that when subjects were given information about cancer and serious health issues, optimists spent more time than pessimists reading the severe risk material and remembered more of it. While pessimists tended to be more passive in the face of adversity, optimists were more proactive and willing to spend time attending to major health risks.  People with a more positive outlook didn’t just resign themselves to the bad news but rather were spurred into action to change their lifestyle and improve their health.  Optimists didn’t wish for a better outcome; they took measures to achieve a better outcome.

Another study led by Dr. Mika Kivimaki in Finland found that optimism reduced the risk of health problems and helped people recover after experiencing a serious life-changing event, such as death of a spouse or child.  After a major life crisis, pessimists tended to take more time off while optimists got back to work and returned to normal as quickly as possible.  Whereas pessimists distanced themselves from others, optimists reengaged with others as a coping strategy.  They were less likely to give up.

Even in sports, optimism and a positive outlook have been found to have a profound impact.  Athletes talk about being in the zone.  Their outlook is deeply connected to the performance.  In fact, it is thought to be at least as important as physical training.  In gymnastics, for example, success is thought to be 90% mental and 10% physical.  Optimism boosts sporting performance, both at team and individual levels. Research into baseball and basketball teams found that teams that are optimistic in the face of defeat are more likely to be successful in their next game, while those that explain setbacks negatively tend to perform more poorly.

Searching for the Silver Lining

It’s easy to be optimistic and positive when everything is going right.  The real challenge is to find the good when it seems like everything is going wrong.  In the bleakest moments, looking for the bright side can feel almost fake and foolish.  But that is exactly when it is needed most.

Being optimistic and keeping a positive mentality is underrated even in the best of times.  But its value is undeniable and it starts with intent.  Choosing to look for the bright side of any situation is a choice.  It involves optimism and positivity; two sides of the same coin.  On the one hand, positivity is not so much about wearing rose-colored glasses and pretending everything is fine when it’s not.  It is about staying focused on finding the good in any situation.  While it isn’t realistic to be upbeat and happy all the time, it is possible to embrace positivity and spot the small bits of brightness in an otherwise black time.

Optimism, on the other hand, believes that while there is a raging thunderstorm now, the future is bright and the sun will surely shine again.  Even in the face of negativity and adversity, optimism is the balloon that can lift a spirit out of the hole.  While things don’t always go as planned, the ability to look beyond the sadness of today is extremely important.   Optimism is being able to see that – even in the midst of total darkness — there will be light again.   At times like this, it is about knowing that eventually there will be a treatment and a vaccine.  Social distancing will eventually end and people will be able to return to normal life.

There are a few things that can help anyone adopt an attitude of positivity and optimism.

1. Look at Forest, not the Trees.  Consider the big picture and realize that even during a low point, this is just a moment in time.  Even as awful as things might be now, it likely won’t matter in a few years.  This, too, shall pass.

2.  Consider the Positives.  Ask:  is there anything good in this otherwise bad situation?  For example, during this pandemic, although there are so many challenges, families are getting to spend more time together.  Families are sharing meals, talking, playing games and connecting more.  That is an example of finding the good amidst so much bad.

3.  Embrace Flexibility.  Let go of nitpicking and worrying about every little detail.  Be more easygoing.

4. Accept and Move On.  When things are going wrong, it’s natural to find fault and place blame. But instead of being negative, replaying scenarios or imagining alternate realities, it is better to accept and move on to actions and solutions for how to make things better.

For business owners, leaders, managers and professionals who think looking for the bright side is silly, consider that we attract what we are.  Genuine positivity and optimism is contagious and will spread to everyone.  Everyone will catch a spirit of hope and a never-give-up attitude.  That’s the kind of pandemic for which no vaccine is needed.

Quote of the Week

“There’s nothing as inspiring as seeing the world through the eyes of someone who is determined to see something good.” Meir Ezra


© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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