Why Optimism is the Ultimate Survival Skill

Why Optimism is the Ultimate Survival Skill

You are capable of extraordinary things.

But if you haven't yet achieved those extraordinary things, it's because there's one survival skill you haven't mastered yet:


We don't usually think of optimism as a survival skill, but that's exactly what it is. In this article, I'm going to show you precisely why it's a skill... and why it's absolutely essential for life. When you start to see optimism as the ultimate survival skill, you'll begin to deliberately improve that skill, and the rewards will be phenomenal.


Why do big goals, big plans, and big dreams bring out the cynicism in people? Have you noticed that the moment you announce a big project, the people around you either go quiet, or get downright negative?

There's a reason for that.

The bigger your ambition, the further your goal is from the present moment.

Big goals seem to be detached from reality.

Imagine for a moment that you had written something like the previous post. What would your friends say? What would your family think? How would the world around you react?

They'd be skeptical. And with good reason.

Where you are today, and where you want to be... are two different worlds. Literally.

Think about it.

Let's say you want to write the best-selling self-published book of all time. (And yes, that's my secret goal for Phenomenal.)

Today, you're just a normal writer. An average person. You're working on your blog and your book each day. But the life of a best-selling author isn't your world right now. It's not your experience. You (and, more importantly, your friends and family) have no frame of reference for how that feels or looks or smells or behaves.

It's different to how things are now. And the people in your life who can't see your vision or understand your goals can't understand the other reality. It's alien. It's unknown. They can't even grasp how it might be achievable.

They have only two ways to respond to it:

  1. They can resist what they don't understand.
  2. They can support what they don't understand.

The first option is spawned by pessimism. They see those two different worlds as incompatible — either with who you are, or with who they are. They fear that if your goal is achieved, the effect on their world will be unpredictable (and most likely "bad").

The second option is spawned by optimism. Regardless of the effect they see on their own world, they see that either a) the goal itself, or b) whatever result comes from your pursuing it — will be a positive effect on your world. And that's something to be encouraged. Even if they don't understand it.

What you might not realize is that you do this to yourself every single day.

With every event that happens, and every decision you make, you are choosing between optimism and pessimism — for exactly the same reasons

The pessimistic choice come from fear of that new future. The optimistic choice comes from its opportunity.

And if you're allowing your pessimism to prevail, you're slowly killing yourself.


You probably already know the optimism scale. It's got five flavors:

  1. Cynicism — "Everything is bad, doomed, and untrustworthy."
  2. Pessimism — "Things are likely to have negative results."
  3. Realism — "Things just are what they are."
  4. Optimism — "Things are likely to have positive results."
  5. Idealism — "Everything will work out brilliantly."

At first glance, "idealism" seems to be the most positive. Why wasn't this article wasn't called "Idealism is the Ultimate Survival Skill"?

Because idealists tend to be overly optimistic.

That's not a bad thing, except that they often ignore potential problems. From the previous articles, you know that anticipating the variables is the secret to a successful prediction. Idealists miss the variables because they only focus on the good side of everything.

Many people consider "realism" the best position on this scale. But being a "realist" means making an assumption. You're assuming you understand "reality". In fact, as we'll see in future articles on this website, "reality" is often subjective. What you think you see is often not what you're really looking at. And because of that, "realists" tend to assume a more negative outlook than most situations warrant.

There's nothing wrong with cynicism or pessimism. They're powerful tools of the human mind. If we identify danger or suspect someone's motives are not in our best interests, they can save our lives.

But how many people do you know (yourself included?) that watch the bulk of their lives through pessimistic eyes? They make the (wrong!) assumption that danger is everywhere. They expect problems. They assume things will go bad. They anticipate the negative.

Optimism is the belief that things are likely to have a positive outcome. It doesn't assume they will, only that it's likely.

By adopting an optimistic outlook on life, we can achieve more and live longer.


Imagine you're facing a life-threatening situation. Put yourself on the Titanic. You've just hit an iceberg and your ship has gone down. Now you find yourself in icy waters with no more rescue boats in the middle of a dark, empty Atlantic ocean.

Consider how each of the attitudes would face the problem:

  • The cynic would give up hope, and expect death. As a result, he'd feel the cold of the water much more immediately, and would succumb the quickest.
  • The pessimist would assume the worst, but would fight to stay alive. But by assuming the worst, he'd mentally compound every negative thing that happened — it's all affirming his belief that he's unlikely to survive. He'd still have hope, but the despair would give the elements the upper hand.
  • The realist would look at the "reality" of the situation. Since it would be statistically unlikely for a boat to find and save him, his presumption (and rightly so) would be that he's in a dire situation with little hope for survival.
  • The idealist would assume that everything was going to be okay. As a result, he might ignore warning signs like the coldness of the water, hypothermia, the subtle nuances of action that might save his life. He is actually less likely to work as hard as needed to save himself.
  • The optimist would take serious stock of his situation, and factor in all of the negatives he faces. But his optimism would give him hope — that if he holds out long enough, he will survive. The optimist will fight the hardest for his own survival, yet still deal with the full severity of the situation.

Obviously, this is an oversimplification. Not all optimists would survive, and not all cynics would die. And, sure, it would depend on individual strength, athletic ability, health, the luck of their particular situation, etc.

But the principles are valid.

The tendency toward certain types of reactions is real. All other things being equal, the optimist will be most likely to survive a life-threatening situation.


We don't have to dunk you in the icy ocean to prove that point.

In fact, a study in 2004 of nearly 1,000 people found that optimists have a 23% reduction of the risk of heart disease, and a 55% reduction in all causes of death.

Think about that. Just by being optimistic about your life, you reduce your risk of many different life-threatening diseases.

A more recent study of nearly 100,000 women over the age of 50 found that the optimists were 30% less likely to die of heart disease.

Optimists have a better chance of living longer.

But what's even more important than the chance of increased lifespan is the quality of life.

For a pessimist in icy waters, all signs will imply he's not likely to make it. In our day-to-day lives, we see signs the very same way.

An optimist who has never exercised before won't expect a struggle. He'll see that he's making an adjustment in his lifestyle — and that it will lead to a new and improved quality of life.

Focus determines trajectory.

I'm a die-hard optimist.

So when I believed the quality of screenwriting in Australia needed to improve, I optimistically thought I could change it. That made me focus on teaching better screenwriting skills. Within a few years, I had taught over a thousand people in nine cities in four countries — 15 at a time. Several students have gone on to significant success.

If I had thought it was impossible (or that I couldn't do anything to change it), the result would be different.



So optimism gives us a positive outlook on things, and that leads to happier choices and situations. We know that, right?

But if that's the case, why do we worry so much?

Why do we so often assume the worst? Why do we allow the news to continually put such a negative spin on our world?

What is it that makes us assume that a big goal, a big ambition, or a big project is going to fail? Why do we let ourselves believe that we can't do something, rather than simply believing that we can?

Because optimism is a skill. We need to develop it.

And it's a skill that will determine our very survival.

When we think of survival skills, we usually think about things like "learning how to build a fire" or "learning how to perform CPR". We equate survival with the basic necessities of life itself — food, shelter, clothing.

Survival skills are about keeping you alive.

So how is optimism a survival skill?

Without it, you will die.

Optimism requires mental agility. When you're confronted with a dangerous or life-threatening situation, it's easy to panic, worry, or fall apart. And that threatens your very survival. But if you develop the skill of keeping your mind focused on the positive outcome, the fear falls away, and enables you to take the actions required to survive.

In fact, optimism is the ultimate survival skill, because it empowers every other survival skill. Imagine a pessimist trying to light a fire. Now imagine an optimist doing it.

Whether you're facing a boardroom of clients, a blank page in your book-in-progress, or someone who needs CPR, optimism is the skill that points you to the road of life.


So we need to get good at it. But how?

Become vigilant about maintaining your optimism. Exercise your mind. Train it to (in the immortal words of the Monty Python gang) "always look on the bright side of life."

Things go wrong. Plans change. The unexpected happens. It's not about ignoring the problems of life — it's about anticipating the variables, and creating optimistic contingency plans.

Don't let pessimism or cynicism invade your thinking.

"Reality" is only a matter of perspective. You choose how to interpret it — whether as a cynic, a pessimist, a realist, an optimist, or an idealist. See it. Make the optimistic choice.

I'll give you an example.

Over the past year, there's been a major global economic downturn. It has absolutely and undeniably affected a great many people in much of the world.

But much of the meltdown was caused by pessimism. People began to fear a meltdown, so they pulled their money out of the markets and stopped spending. The result? A meltdown. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As I write this, many world economies are struggling to regain their upward momentum. Ironically, so much of the fear comes from the same pessimistic thinking that caused the meltdown in the first place.

Don't get me wrong. It's certainly appropriate to be cautious with your finances. But to assume things will get worse and never recover (many people predicted long and extended depressions lasting a generation), is to vastly underestimate the very nature of human beings.

We'll cover some of these ideas in future articles, but for now, the relevant point is this:

All living things exist to grow.

Growth is life. Life is growth. Without persistent cynicism and pessimism, no economic downturn can last for any length of time. Human beings need to grow. It's written into our DNA. We're here to solve problems and find solutions, and build and celebrate and experience.

Of course negative things happen. But they are the anomaly of life. We are innately a growing, living, social organism. We will work toward our own long-term survival. It's who we are.

So when you find anything in your life drawing you towards pessimism or cynicism, understand that you are being taken by a mental cancer.

Fight it passionately.


Deliberate optimism opens up a whole new world to you — the world you want to exist.

We don't need to do any feel-good wishful-thinking to manifest the world we want. Everything we need sits right there inside the grey matter in our heads.

By focusing on the possible, we open up solutions. We achieve the lives we want to live.

Optimism is the choice between life and death.

The phenomenal experience is life itself. It's not just us ticking away the moments of the clock. As we saw in an earlier post, the moments of the clock will tick away whether we watch them or not.

Rather, the phenomenal experience is the life we want to lead. To reach it, we only need to realize that anything we imagine is possible.

Choose the world you want to experience. Optimism is the bridge to that world. All you need to do is believe it's possible.

Because from that moment forward, it is.

Next up, Article #6:
Prove Yourself

Phenomenal: The Self-fulfilling Prophecy
is a dynamic new nonfiction book from author Jeff Bollow. You can pre-order your signed, Limited Edition first printing copy with our zero risk buyback guarantee right now. Visit the Pre-Order page for full details.