Does Your Mental Attitude Determine Success?

I’ve just read an interesting book about optimism. It was written by an expert in the field and provides a great deal of scientific proof for some ideas I’ve developed about mental attitudes and success. According to Martin Seligman, the author of “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life,” pessimists, though miserable, tend to have a more realistic view of the world around them than do their optimistic counterparts.

Many studies have been conducted to test this theory and they have all resulted in the same conclusion: More often than not, the gloomy outlook is justified. That doesn’t mean pessimists do better in life. Although their perspective is clearer, their performance is ultimately weaker, Seligman says. On this point, too, he says there is a great deal of scientific proof. This is mostly, though not entirely, true of my experience. When I think about optimism, my wife’s lovely face comes to mind. KFF is the irrepressible optimist.

Given any troublesome situation — getting lost on an unfamiliar highway, witnessing the Heat lose a 20-point lead, imagining how a planned vacation will turn out — KFF will be sure everything will work out fine. I, on the other hand, will almost surely have a gloomier view. If the studies are right, I am more often righter than KFF. But that doesn’t make me any happier. And it doesn’t make me pleasant.

Ultimately, it doesn’t seem to matter whether things turn out badly or not. We deal with what comes. The difference is that I suffer the dread of believing things will work out poorly and KFF suffers my insufferable pessimism. Pessimists are more realistic, but they are also less happy and die younger. Optimists not only enjoy their rose-colored world better, they are more enjoyable to others.

Seligman makes this point. But he also contends that optimists do better in life. He says that studies show that optimists make more money, rise higher in business, accomplish more, have happier marriages, and are generally more successful. That does not jibe quite as well with my experience. Are optimists really more successful than their darker emotional siblings?

I take a quick mental survey of the successful people I’m friendly with and I’d have to say that they fall equally into each camp. PR, a million-dollar-a-year copywriter, is a die-hard pessimist. AS, who has struggled in the past and is now doing very well (in the same business as PR), is irrepressibly bubbly. JSN, who started and grew at least four super-successful businesses, is buoyant and bullish 80% of the time.

I’d say this: The overall view you have about how things will turn out — the trained or instinctual response you have to problems — has nothing to do with how successful you will be. Your success depends, not on your mood or your emotional instincts, but on your actions — what you actually do. Your mental outlook does matter, though. It has everything to do with how happy you are.

When I think about PR, AS, JSN, and the others, I can see very clearly that the fun in life is distributed heavily in favor of the optimists. The ideal personality would be able to see reality for what it is, act according to what is best, and believe that things will work out fine. Something like that. More on this tomorrow. Let me know your thoughts on the ETR Message Board (