By Karen F. Deppa, MAPP, and Michael A. Donahue, Ph.D., CFPS, PilotLight Resilience Resources, LLC
In May 2019, the Washington Nationals baseball team was ranked at the bottom of the National League with a 19-31 record. Players and coaches alike could not see beyond the hole they were in, and they were in danger of wallowing in utter despair. As Mike Rizzo, their general manager, held a team meeting to figure out steps they would take individually and collectively to start winning again, he ended with these words: “We have to be ultra-positive and do things with a smile on our faces. Because if we panic, we’re done. Let’s get this thing turned around… We’re not turning around tomorrow. This thing is going to be a slow, painful process.” By season’s end, the Nationals, unimaginably, had won the World Series, baseball’s ultimate prize.
As an emergency responder on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, exhausted, overwhelmed and fearful for the health of your family, colleagues, and yourself, witnessing tragedy on a daily basis, you would be forgiven for thinking that life sucks right now. Nobody in their right mind would command you to be “ultrapositive” and do your job with a smile. And yet…there is truth to the idea that an optimistic attitude can help you work your way through this dark period and come out of it with your behavioral health intact.
Optimism, and Why You Want Some
Optimism is a key driver of resilient thinking. One way that optimism is defined in the psychological research is called “optimistic explanatory style.” It refers to people who do not automatically personalize events (but take responsibility when they should), who realize that bad situations will not last forever, and who do not allow the adversity to affect all aspects of their lives. These same people treat positive events in the opposite way: as something that they helped to bring about, that will endure, and that is just one example of a lifetime of positive events. Another definition, known as “dispositional optimism,” is defined as a general expectation that good things will happen in the future and a belief that things can change for the better.
Whichever definition we look at, research demonstrates that optimistic thinkers have several advantages over more pessimistic thinkers. Optimists are more likely to persist longer and harder in addressing challenges, approach situations from a positive motivation rather than trying to avoid negative situations, seek and find positive meaning in all events, use humor to find relief from distress, and accept circumstances they can’t change while still hoping for a positive outcome. They show more flexibility and creativity when solving problems. They also take better care of themselves and exhibit a healthier immune response. That last reason alone is a good incentive to adopt an optimistic viewpoint these days.
But, let’s be clear: we are NOT talking about slapping a “happy face” indiscriminately on the pandemic, or any other situation.
EXTREME Optimism Is Bad for Your Health and Safety
Extreme optimism, also known as Pollyanna optimism, can actually hurt us and others by blinding us to the facts and consequences of a situation, whatever they may be. It can cause us to take inappropriate actions or take no action when action is needed. For example, the research shows that unrealistically optimistic people tend to deceive themselves with an “it can’t happen to me” attitude and underestimate their health risks. As a result, they tend not to take preventive actions, such as wearing face masks and gloves, practicing social distancing, and washing their hands. When an overly optimistic worldview butts up against reality, it can cause us to become disillusioned.
Moreover, the self-deception caused by over-the-top optimism decreases our resistance to the negative effects of stress. People who repress negative emotions to focus only on positive feelings have a stronger negative physiological reaction to stress than those who are more accepting of their negative emotions.
The Kind of Optimism We Need
What kind of optimism is needed right now?
Relevant to this discussion is a concept in psychology called agathism, whose root is the Greek word for “good.” Agathism is the belief that all things tend toward the good, even though the means by which that happens may be unpleasant, unfortunate, or evil. But, while we think this sentiment is more accepting of reality, it is too passive and fails to acknowledge the effect of perception of and personal responsibility on the outcome.
Psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, who wrote the moving and wise memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, referred to tragic optimism, in which one can remain optimistic, be hopeful, and find meaning in the face of pain, guilt, and death. This term, too, gets to the heart of what we are trying to convey. But its focus on the tragic may make it less useful when trying to assess more positive events.
We prefer a third term, one that refocuses attention through a somewhat different lens: realistic optimism. We believe it best suits this moment and represents a productive general approach to life that allows us to hold both the good and the bad in our minds at the same time.
Realistic optimism lets you take adverse events into account, but not fall into despair because of them. It puts the responsibility for a problem where it should be on a case-by-case basis – but always with an eye toward solving the problem and moving on, rather than placing blame. It recognizes and accepts situations for what they are, without catastrophizing or dramatizing. It acknowledges when we have to accept an outcome we can’t control. It allows us to feel fearful, anxious, sad, or angry when the circumstances warrant, while at the same time believing that things will get better. It allows us to hope for positive outcomes without assuming that those outcomes are a foregone conclusion. It allows us to “embrace the suck,” but gives us permission to move past the “suck” and see the silver lining in even the bleakest of situations.
Using Realistic Optimism to Your Advantage
The Dalai Lama said, “Optimism doesn’t mean that you are blind to the reality of the situation. It means that you remain motivated to seek a solution to whatever problems arise.” Here are a few ways that you might try using realistic optimism to navigate the extreme adversity you are bearing now. These recommendations will help to carry you beyond this difficult moment and into a future that you and your colleagues will have helped to make better through your service.
- Accept the uncertainty of life and the difficulty of this moment, while making a deliberate choice to notice and amplify whatever good you can find. Choose to see the unavoidable suffering of others as a growth experience, perhaps in a spiritual way, or as a way to increase your empathy or compassion for others, or as a way to appreciate others who are working to alleviate pain. Frankl said that even if you can’t change the situation that is causing the suffering, you can still choose your attitude toward that situation.
- Act now on things you can control and change for the better. If you can’t act just yet, make goals and plans to take action. Your planning must identify the challenges and obstacles you will face on the way to reaching your goals, and must consider how you will address those challenges before they arise. When Rizzo acknowledged the “slow and painful process” his Washington Nationals would endure to turn their season around, he was being realistically optimistic about the challenges the team would have to overcome. The things you can’t change or control? Let them go.
- Take time for self-care to help you tap the optimism that is within you. It’s so much harder to see the positive in anything when you are feeling depleted. So build rejuvenating moments into every day. For example, take deliberate, brief pauses throughout your day to identify things to appreciate and savor, however small: a favorite song playing on the radio, a really good burger, a colorful shrub blooming in someone’s yard, a beautiful sunrise or sunset, the picture that your child drew for you. Carve out time for physical exercise, especially a type that you enjoy. Meditate or sit quietly once or twice a day, even for 10 minutes. Do what works for you, as long as it doesn’t harm your health.
- When your thoughts turn toward dark subjects, let them be rather than try to suppress them. But let them co-exist with thoughts that are more hopeful, compassionate, forgiving, charitable -- even humorous. Humans are hard-wired toward negativity, and the worst-case scenarios you trained for may well be happening right now, so letting in more positive thoughts may take some effort. Focus on asking yourself what you love, enjoy, value, appreciate, admire, and hope for, as ways into more optimistic thinking that does not deny the reality of the current situation.
- Recognize that being happy is not the goal of resilience. Frankl cautions that happiness cannot be commanded or ordered. In fact, people who pursue meaningful goals that are aligned with their values often express satisfaction only in hindsight. While they are doing meaningful work and serving others, they may be downright miserable at times. And that is OK, especially if you build in time for self-care and rejuvenation (see above).
Resilience is a process of adapting in a positive way to situations involving adversity or risk. We can learn strategies and practice that cultivate it. Realistically, don’t expect the process to unfold smoothly. But, as a process, take steps to ensure that the journey becomes at least as important, if not more important, than the destination. Acknowledge the reality of what is, and nurture the strength inside you that allows you to continue working toward better outcomes.
The COVID-19 virus pandemic will come to an end. We will develop herd immunity or someone will develop an effective vaccine. But, another crisis is waiting around the corner. Our business of emergency response dictates that we will be in the middle of whatever comes. The resilience skills you practice today will help better prepare you for the next significant event, however large or small. Remember: resilience is teachable -- and learnable.
Karen F. Deppa and Michael A. Donahue are principals of PilotLight Resilience Resources, LLC, creators of the Respond with Resilience™ class in Psychological Wellness for Emergency Services First Responders. Learn more about us and our class at www.pilotlightresilence.com.
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