This is another in a series of blogs about the principles of building resilience which come from the research we carried out with South Africans at work. We asked 76 people to give us examples (critical incident interviews) of what they did when experiencing hard times (adversity) and how they got through it (resilience), and checked out the common themes that arose (constructs) with them in group discussions (focus groups). From this information, we developed principles and steps which we have taught to several hundred people. They report sustained changes in their resilience both after the training and then three months later – changes which are statistical significant.


The fifth principle of Building Resilience is “Be realistically optimistic”. It concerns building personal resilience by choosing to live with a positive attitude. This positive attitude should be realistic however, as unfounded optimism results in unrealistic expectations which in turn diminishes resilience as it frequently disappoints and even hinders coping.


At the heart of this principle is the strong belief that one can to a large extent influence the direction of one’s life and that the inevitable problems encountered along life’s journey can be solved. Resilient people choose to be positive rather than negative. This construct echo’s Viktor Frankl’s (1982) thoughts and logotherapy concepts: “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.


We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves to make sense of our experiences of life (explanatory style). These stories have the power to mould and ultimately define who we are, and in this way, the stories we tell ourselves create ourselves. In the diagramme, which is adopted from the wonderful work of Martin EP Seligman, you will see that optimists (star gazers) view the good things they experience as permanent and affect everything, whereas the bad things they experience are perceived as temporary and have limited effect on their overall lives.This is very different to the pessimists (mud gazers) who have an almost opposite view on how things happen in their lives.


Some people are born more optimistic than others, but the good news is that realistic optimism can be enhanced and so one does not need to be stuck in the mind-set of persistently seeing doom and gloom. One of the ways of enhancing optimism is to reframe the adversity which was described under the principle of maintaining perspective. This enables one to change the story one tells oneself, and thus choose a more balanced and positive outlook on life.


There are two additional simple but powerful exercises which can assist building resilience by enhancing realistic optimism: reflecting on the good that has happened to you over the past 24 hours and reflecting on what you are really grateful for and why. The benefits are profound: people who do these exercises regularly report enhanced optimism, positivity, energy and connectedness.


Do you need to become more realistically optimistic? If so, what don’t you try one of the exercises once a day at the same time for a week? It’s free and the benefits are huge!


Reference: Seligman MEP, 1990: Learned Optimism. How to change your mind and your life. Vintage Books