The power of optimism: How firefighters can grow this essential trait

Optimism is less a personality trait and more a strategy for how to deal with outside events – and strategies can be learned


Firefighters are essentially optimists. I know that some will argue this point based on their own experiences with coworkers who seem to embody negativity or pessimism. But at its core, the fire service is rooted in optimism. After all, you have to be optimistic to believe you can make a positive difference when you arrive on the scene of an individual’s worst day or even an unfolding disaster. Optimism and resilience are necessary to keep showing up and doing your best under these circumstances, day after day and year after year.

The flip side: Firefighters can experience some dark times when it feels like their efforts don’t matter or that a difficult personal situation will only get worse and never be resolved. This is where the power of optimism matters most.

Although some people are naturally more positive than others, optimism can be learned. And learning to be more optimistic will not only enhance mental and physical health but can also lead to more effectiveness and purpose on the job, and in life in general.

Although some people are naturally more positive than others, optimism can be learned. And learning to be more optimistic will not only enhance mental and physical health but can also lead to more effectiveness and purpose on the job, and in life in general.
Although some people are naturally more positive than others, optimism can be learned. And learning to be more optimistic will not only enhance mental and physical health but can also lead to more effectiveness and purpose on the job, and in life in general. (Photo/Getty Images)

Learning to be optimistic

Psychologist Martin Seligman was a pioneer researcher not only in learned optimism but also in its opposite, learned helplessness. In fact, it was Dr. Seligman’s work on learned helplessness that led him to research the elements that lead to a more optimistic and successful attitude.           

Optimism is not fundamentally about being cheerful or happy. Instead, according to Seligman, the basis of optimism is in how one thinks about causes of events or outcomes in their lives. In this way, optimism is less a personality trait and more a strategy for how to deal with outside events – and strategies can be learned.

Seligman puts forth three cognitive elements that form the basis for how we understand our experiences: personalization, permanence and pervasiveness. By addressing these elements, it is possible to learn to be more optimistic.

  1. Personalization is about how you attribute causation of events, either internally or externally. Pessimists tend to see causation of bad events in their lives as due to internal factors. If they experience a failure or setback, they believe it is their fault, personalizing the outcome. Optimists externalize instead; other factors were to blame instead of just them and the next time may be better.
  2. Permanence is about whether someone views a negative situation as transitory or lasting and unchangeable. For example, when pessimists do badly on a test, they are likely to tell themselves, “I’m a terrible test-taker” or “I’ll never understand hydraulics.” Optimists tend to see failure as situational and fleeting: “I didn’t study hard enough for that test. I can do better next time.
  3. Pervasiveness refers to how wide or limited a person’s perception is of any particular adversity or failure. Pessimists tend to think of adversity in a global sense: “I failed the test; therefore, I am a terrible firefighter and always will be.” Optimists tend to compartmentalize adversity: “I failed that test. I need to work harder on hydraulics” without letting that failure extend to all aspects of their lives.

How can you change your perspective from one that is predominantly pessimistic to one that is more positive? The same way you perfect any new skill or behavior: self-awareness and practice.

Self-awareness is the first step. Most pessimists don’t think of themselves as such. They consider themselves realists. That may be true in some cases, but if you consistently perceive events through a lens that holds you permanently and pervasively responsible, you might want to consider alternatives.

So, are you an optimist or pessimist? And in what ways? Self-evaluation tools can be helpful (many exist for free online, like this one). It can also be helpful to ask those close to you for their honest evaluation.

Once you uncover pessimistic tendencies, how can you change to be more optimistic? Seligman offer a simple ABC process of evaluation:

  • Adversity: What is the conflict? Who is involved?
  • Beliefs: What in your mind explains this conflict or problem?
  • Consequences: What is the actual result of your belief system related to this problem?

For example, let’s say you do badly on a test. Afterward you berate yourself for being a bad test-taker, not being smart enough, not being the kind of firefighter you want to be. All these beliefs make it more likely that you will do badly on other assessments in the future, thus reinforcing your conclusions about who you are and what you are capable of.

But what if you question these assumptions? What if you consider other causes for the adverse outcome? Were there outside factors that inhibited your ability to adequately prepare for the test? Are there other study strategies that might work better next time? Who could help you with test preparation? Was the test designed differently from what you expected, but now having experienced it, will you be better prepared? All these options undo the premise that you alone are permanently and irrevocably responsible for what is happening.

“Optimism is moral courage”

Ultimately, becoming more optimistic is about accepting the ability to change, to make a difference, and to substantially help yourself and others. It is about seeing situations in an objective sense rather than personalizing them, and always seeking new possibilities and options for dealing with adversity.

Polar explorer and superstar of survival stories Ernest Shackleton once said, “Optimism is moral courage.” Against the greatest odds, he saved his entire crew in an ordeal that took nearly two years. He never gave up, and he always looked for new ways to solve problems, to make things better, and to ensure the survival of himself and everyone with him.           

That’s what the best firefighters do, too.

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