This week we explore the links between optimism and resilience, using the example of a terrifying real life hang gliding experience.
Welcome to episode 21 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we address some of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we are looking at optimism and resilience.
Have you ever had a travel experience that didn’t quite go to plan. Chris Gursky certainly has. Chris recently travelled from his home in Florida to Switzerland. He was particularly keen to have a tandem hang gliding experience over the picturesque Swiss countryside, so he booked that in for the first day of his holiday. The YouTube video of his first flight (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLBJA8SlH2w&t=9s) shows an excited Chris and his pilot running towards their take off from high on a mountainside. As soon as they took off though Chris and the pilot realise something has gone horribly wrong - the harness Chris is wearing is not actually clipped on to the hang glider, leaving Chris to hang on for dear life. Chris has one hand on the steering bar and one hand on the pilot for most of the flight, not sure of how long he could hold on. The pilot tries for an early landing, but is unable to control the steering while also trying to hold on to Chris, leaving the hang glider to travel over an even greater drop - some 4,000 feet from the ground. After an excruciating two minutes, the hang glider finally nears the ground travelling around 45 miles per hour, with Chris letting go just before it lands. Chris walked away with a broken wrist from the landing and a torn bicep muscle from holding on so hard. Amazingly, despite the ordeal, Chris said “I will go hang gliding again as I did not get to enjoy my first flight.”
Chris’ story demonstrates the two main elements of resilience - holding on and bouncing back. On the one hand, resilience is about your ability to withstand difficult circumstances - to hold on despite the odds - which Chris literally demonstrated during his hang gliding experience. And resilience is also about your ability to quickly bounce back from setbacks - much like Chris’ desire to go hang gliding again, despite his near death experience.
So much of our experience of life is shaped by the lens through which we view events, rather than the events themselves. Shawn Achor in his book “The Happiness Advantage” says that if researchers knew everything about your situation, they can only predict 10% of your happiness levels. Around 50% of our happiness is determined by a so-called genetic set point, with the remaining 40% being determined by our thoughts and actions which, of course, we can alter.
Our resilience links closely to our level of optimism. Martin Seligman describes this in his book “Learned Optimism”. As the title suggests, Seligman has long argued that optimism can be learned, just as early behavioural experiments with animals demonstrated that helplessness and pessimism can also be learned. Seligman outlines three ways in which optimists and pessimists differ when seeking to explain the causes and impacts of events - personalisation, permanence and pervasiveness - the three P’s.
Let’s look at these three P’s using an example of a setback. Alan is reversing his car into a tight spot in the city when he hears breaking glass and the hiss of a tyre going flat. It turns out he has backed over a glass bottle, badly puncturing a tyre on his car.
Consider the three P’s if Alan took a pessimistic view of this situation:
Personalisation - Alan immediately blames himself - he should have noticed the bottle and been more careful while parking the car - it’s all his fault.
Permanence - these kinds of things always happen to him - this flat tyre is going to take ages to change and then repair - it’s ruined his whole week.
Pervasiveness - now he’s going to be late for the show tonight, which means his girlfriend is going to be unhappy with him - he’ll be grumpy at work all week, and he just can’t be bothered going to the gym in the morning now.
What about if Alan took an optimistic view of the same situation:
Personalisation - this could have happened to anyone, and whoever left the bottle there was pretty careless - it’s not really Alan’s fault at all
Permanence - Alan will be able to change the tyre quickly after the show - it’s a 15 minute job at the most, and doesn’t really impact his evening or week
Pervasiveness - it’s just a flat tyre - things in his relationship and at work are going well and the rest of his life is pretty positive - it’s no big deal
You can see how an optimistic mindset would make Alan more resilient, both in the moment with the punctured tyre, but also in bouncing back from a potentially negative situation.
Interestingly, when positive things happen, the thinking styles are reversed. The optimist will be more likely to take credit for the positive outcome, to see it as another sign of things to be grateful for, and will let the positive experience flow into other areas of their life. The pessimist, in contrast, will tend to put the positive outcome down to luck or the efforts of others, limit its impact in time, and see it as a small and contained part of their life.
You can learn to be more optimistic in the moment. Just understanding these differences in thinking styles will make you more aware of your own thought patterns in both positive and negative situations. You can then treat your initial thoughts as opinions rather than facts. For example, if something goes wrong, you might tell yourself “you’re an idiot - you can never get anything right”. Instead of just accepting this negative thought, treat it as an opinion which can be challenged. Is it really your fault? Do you always get things wrong, or are there examples of things you do well? What are some other explanations or ways of viewing the situation? Train yourself to look at alternative explanations rather than just accepting the first negative thought that comes into your head.
There’s also the ‘boring but important’ aspects of a healthy life that help to build resilience and optimism, namely diet, sleep and exercise. Connections with friends and family also matter. As does taking the time to slow down and be grateful for all the positive things in our lives - noting down three new things each day to be grateful for is a simple and effective practice that helps us to focus on the positives in life.
This week, think of Chris Gursky and his terrifying hang gliding flight. By holding on and then quickly deciding to give hang gliding another try, Chris provides a powerful demonstration of resilience in action.
Martin Seligman - Learned Optimism
Shawn Achor - The Happiness Advantage