Why It Pays to be an Optimist

Optimists are the nice guys who work in customer support. They’re the ones who will say “Hello!” and smile at you even though they’ve just been handed their notice of redundancy. But it is life’s pessimists, and not the optimists, who seem to command others’ attention. They are seen as rational, shrewd and intelligent; the ones ‘keeping it real’; whose solemn pronouncements about impending doom are taken at face value and acted upon.

In spite of this, study after study has shown that it is optimism that breeds success, and it is positively correlated with other desirable characteristics such as resilience, happiness and health too.  It pays to be an optimist in life and work; here are some research-backed findings regarding optimists.

Optimistic salespeople are more successful than pessimistic ones

Though the pessimistic salesperson gives up after one too many rejections, his optimistic counterpart will keep going. Optimists have ‘problem focused’ approaches to dealing with setbacks, unlike their pessimistic counterparts whose responses, according to one study, tend to be ‘emotion-focused’. It is no surprise, then, that the most successful salespeople are optimists. A noteworthy study by “the father of positive psychology”, Dr Martin Seligman found that optimistic salespeople sold significantly more - 88% more - than those judged as being ‘pessimistic’.  Seligman’s study found that pessimistic salespeople made fewer sales attempts and gave up more easily than their optimistic counterparts.

Optimists are more resilient

Seligman’s work has also shown that optimism is the key to resilience. Optimists don’t give up easily; they interpret setbacks as “temporary” (e.g., “This won’t last long”), local (eg, “It only happens in this department”) and “changeable” ( eg,”I can change this”).  In the Harvard Business Review, Seligman  describes the resilience training given to US army sergeants, in which optimism is a core component.

Optimists create more opportunities for themselves than pessimists

Countless studies have shown that a positive disposition and outlook lends itself well to creating, spotting and acting upon opportunities. Optimists expect the best outcomes, and this gives them the impetus to try out new things, an outlook that creates a good foundation for success. In her paper entitled ”Optimism and resources: Effects on Each Other and Health Over 10 Years”, the psychologist Susan Segerstrom found that more optimistic first-year  law graduates earned more than their pessimistic counterparts ten years after graduation.  Segerstrom also observes that a number of studies have found that optimists “actively pursue social relationships, have more friends and longer friendships, and are more popular” than pessimists.

Optimists may make effective leaders

Margaret Greenberg and Dana Arakawa, from  the University of Pennsylvania, found a positive correlation between a manager’s optimism and personal level of engagement on a task; but  a “circuitous” correlation between a manager’s optimism and the success of a project . Their research suggests that optimistic (and therefore engaged) managers are more able to engage their workers; and their workers, in turn, become more optimistic and more productive than those employees who are not engaged.  Regarding optimism, Greenberg suggests that:

Without it, there is no hope, no reason to stretch, and no belief that an organization can rally to achieve its vision.

To sum up, optimists make better salespeople and leaders; are better at creating opportunities for themselves in life and work; and are better able to deal with setbacks. The main takeaway here is that it certainly pays to be an optimist.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Here’s a test you can take to find out.

Harvard Business Review
Gallup Business Journal