by Lynda Wallace

Optimism is a powerfully beneficial approach to life. It’s well established that optimistic people are happier, healthier, and more successful than pessimists. And optimism is much more than just looking on the bright side of things. It’s an approach to life that focuses on solutions rather than problems and spurs us on to take action to create the lives we want to live.

Of course, we can all be optimistic or pessimistic, depending on the situation. But there are certain habits of mind common to people with generally optimistic attitudes.

Take this quiz to see what they are—and if you’ve got them.

Question #1: Setback at Work
Your boss is dissatisfied with a big presentation you worked really hard on. You agree that it didn’t go very well.

Is your reaction more like A or B?
A. You worry that your boss has lost confidence in you because of the poor presentation, and you wonder if you should start looking for another job—preferably one that doesn’t require you to make presentations.

B. You let your boss know you’re disappointed in how it went, but that you’re confident that you can do better. You develop a plan to enhance your presentation skills and offer to take on an extra project that would give you a chance to make another—better—presentation sometime soon.

When pessimists think about problems, they tend to see them as general (“My boss has lost confidence in me”) and permanent (“I’d better look for another job”).

Optimists, on the other hand, generally see problems as specific (“That presentation didn’t go well”) and temporary (“I need to get better at this and then demonstrate my improved skills”).

Optimists also tend to see failures as learning opportunities, and to have the confidence and determination to take advantage of them to create a better future.

Question #2: Delay at the Airport
You arrive at the airport to start your vacation and discover that your flight is delayed by three hours because your plane had equipment trouble and the airline has decided to swap it out for a different one.

Which is more like your reaction?
A. “It’s just my luck—this sort of thing always happens to me.”
B. “It’s a pain, but these things happen to everybody. And I’d rather be on the ground because of a malfunctioning plane than up in the air in one.”

Pessimists tend to take bad luck personally, convinced that they’re uniquely likely to wind up in the long line at the grocery store or with bad weather on vacation, as if the universe is somehow conspiring to ruin their plans.

Optimists, on the other hand, recognize that these frustrations are random and not worth making ourselves miserable over. And they can usually find something to be grateful for, even when everything isn’t going their way.

Question #3: Thanksgiving Disaster?
You’re cooking a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner for your extended family. It’s early afternoon, and time to peel the potatoes, when you realize you forgot to buy any.

Are you more likely to:
A. Feel defeated. What’s Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes? And of course the stores are closed. All your hard work to create a perfect holiday has been wasted.
B. Figure everyone on your block is making mashed potatoes today, and that if they can each spare one potato, you can round up all you need in about 10 minutes of ringing doorbells. And if that doesn’t work, there will be plenty of other great things to eat.

On an emotionally pitched day like Thanksgiving, a pessimist is likely to get stuck in the feelings of embarrassment and frustration that can come with a mistake like this, and have a hard time thinking of ways to change the situation.

An optimist is able to think beyond the problem to possible solutions, including considering how friends and neighbors might be able to help turn the situation around. And if the fix doesn’t pan out, the optimist is able to keep the problem in perspective and not let it ruin a great day.

So did you catch them all? In the answers to these three questions, we saw 10 things that optimistic people do. Here they are.

Optimistic people:

  • 1. See problems as specific rather than general.
  • 2. Consider setbacks to be temporary instead of permanent.
  • 3. See failures as learning opportunities.
  • 4. Have confidence in their ability to create a better future.
  • 5. Take specific and determined action to do so.
  • 6. Understand that bad luck is random and affects us all.
  • 7. Find reasons to be grateful even in frustrating situations.
  • 8. Think beyond problems to potential solutions.
  • 9. Rely on friends and neighbors for help.
  • 10. Keep problems in perspective.

Optimism leads to greater confidence, more determined action, and an ability to think of more creative solutions to problems. And of course all of those things lead in turn to greater optimism.

It’s a self-reinforcing cycle, and the more we practice the habits of optimism, the more optimistic—and the happier, healthier, and more successful—we’ll become.

In my next post, I’ll share a five-step process for practicing the art of optimism in the face of life’s inevitable letdowns.

Excerpted from “A Short Course in Happiness: Practical Steps to a Happier Life,” by Lynda Wallace.

LyndaLynda Wallace is a highly sought-after coach who meets with local clients in her sunny office in Montclair, New Jersey, and with clients from around the world by phone and video. She wrote the best-selling book “A Short Course in Happiness,” and teaches Positive Psychology Coaching courses for WholeBeing Institute. Lynda spent 20 years as a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson and holds an MBA from the Wharton School.