Better For Your Health Than Vitamins, More Helpful to Your Success Than a Ph.D.
by Susan Dunn, M.A.

Did you know that one of the most important things you can do for your health and success is to learn optimism?

My executive coaching client, whom I'll call Ben, was having trouble getting another job. Downsized, he was pessimistic about his skills, the job market, the economy, the people who interviewed him, his future, and just about anything we talked about. In addition, his blood pressure was skyrocketing despite a rigorous fitness regime. I could see why no one wanted to hire him though he had an impressive resume and competitive skills. The loss of the job triggered the pessimism. Then the pessimism became the problem.

What can someone like this do? Learn optimism.

Numerous studies cited in “Learned Optimism,” by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., confirm that optimists are:

  • Healthier and live longer
  • Resistant to depression
  • Likely to achieve their potential
  • Persistent in the face of adversity
  • Able to get maximum pleasure from success because they think they caused it
  • Excel in everything from sports to sales

Pessimism, on the other hand:

  • Lowers your immunity
  • Your health at age 60 will be strongly related to your optimism/pessimism at age 25
  • Makes you more prone to isolation which is a higher heath risk than smoking
  • Lowers your Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
  • Keeps you from taking your health or getting medical advice when needed
  • Causes more bad events in life to occur in a vicious cycle

How can you ‘learn’ optimism? There are cognitive exercises in “Learned Optimism,” or you can take distance learning classes, or have coaching or counseling. You can’t learn it by memorizing mantras or carrying around quotes on a 3x5’. It involves learning new self-talk and practicing it rigorously until mastered. It means replacing an old habit with a new one, and practicing something that doesn't come naturally to you.

Optimism is an emotional intelligence competency and these competencies are best learned with a coach or someone who can provide feedback and help you learn in a social/emotional context. The optimal mix is to take a distance learning course first, so you and your coach can be reading off the same page, familiarize yourself with emotional intelligence, and then start several months of coaching.

Incidentally, if you think optimists aren’t always in touch with reality, you’re right. Pessimists are more often right, but optimists accomplish more.

It’s a tempered optimism we’re talking about — one that you choose to use or not. It means making optimism one of the tools in your repertoire, like intuition, something you can pull out when you need it.

Seligman suggests using it "in achievement situations, sports, when giving a speech; when trying to curb depression; when dealing with a protracted physical health issue; or when trying to lead, inspire, or get elected".

Times when you should not use optimism are when the stakes are very high — i.e., considering having an affair, day trading, or when counseling someone in dire trouble.

You should always use optimism when processing a negative event, such as getting fired, or losing a sale. Seligman, who has researched optimism for over 30 years, and calls himself a born-pessimist, recommends distracting yourself immediately (go have fun) and watching your self-talk. Do not attribute the bad event to permanent, pervasive or personal reasons, i.e., “I’m a loser. This always happens. I might as well give up.” Instead, attribute it to temporary, specific and external reasons, i.e., “He fired me because he’s overwhelmed and a poor manager. I’ll do fine at the next job.”

Lastly, here are 4 tips to try:

  1. Don’t disqualify positive experiences. If someone says you’re in great shape, don’t say, “I’m just lucky,” say, “Thank you. I work at it.”

  2. Emphasize the positive.

  3. Don’t be a perfectionist. Set realistic goals and standards.

  4. Keep things in proportion. Losing your car keys in not equivalent to Nine One One.

Optimists live 19% longer and enjoy it more, too. Furthermore as a leader, you will model optimism for your employees, and studies show that bringing emotional intelligence competencies into your business or corporation will positively impact the bottom line. Isn't that reason enough to learn optimism?

Susan Dunn, M.A., is an executive coach, speaker, writer, and author of a series of ebooks on emotional intelligence. She is dedicated to bringing EQ into the workplace with seminars and workshops, individual coaching, and adjunctive distance learning courses. Visit her on the web at and for a free ezine about EQ in the workplace. Please put "EQ" in the subject line.

Many more articles on Personal Development in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2002 by Susan Dunn. All rights reserved.

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