The Secret To Staying Motivated? Optimism, Not Anger

Many of us use anger to fight our way back from failure. But as our veterans have proven, optimism is a more powerful motivator than anger.

The Secret To Staying Motivated? Optimism, Not Anger

There’s an old idiom, “don’t get mad, get even.” I’ve always loved it, but of course, that just means I’m a hothead. Because if you really break down that idiom’s meaning, it’s not telling you to quell your conniption. It’s telling you to channel that anger to reach new heights. So to the bells of Rocky, many of us punch away at projects, venting our way to the top.


But as Emily Esfahani Smith points out over at The Atlantic, research has shown that optimism–for however cheesy that term can sound to the bag-punchers in the crowd–is a lot more powerful when your chips are down than making two fists and fighting your way out of a corner.

This is what Dr. Dennis Charney, the dean of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, found when he examined approximately 750 Vietnam war veterans who were held as prisoners of war for six to eight years. Tortured and kept in solitary confinement, these 750 men were remarkably resilient. Unlike many fellow veterans, they did not develop depression or posttraumatic stress disorder after their release, even though they endured extreme stress. What was their secret? After extensive interviews and tests, Charney found ten characteristics that set them apart. The top one was optimism. The second was altruism. Humor and having a meaning in life–or something to live for–were also important.

For many years, psychologists, following Freud, thought that people simply needed to express their anger and anxiety–blow off some steam–to be happier. But this is wrong. Researchers, for example, asked people who were mildly-to-moderately depressed to dwell on their depression for eight minutes. The researchers found that such ruminating caused the depressed people to become significantly more depressed and for a longer period of time than people who simply distracted themselves thinking about something else. Senseless suffering–suffering that lacks a silver lining–viciously leads to more depression.

Counter-intuitively, another study found that facing down adversity by venting–hitting a punching bag or being vengeful toward someone who makes you angry–actually leads to people feeling far worse, not better. Actually, doing nothing at all in response to anger was more effective than expressing the anger in these destructive ways.

Taking this research into account, another idiom comes to mind: “The darkest hour is just before the dawn.” Interestingly enough, that was also the slogan of the latest Batman movie. In other words, even Bruce Wayne, who dedicated his life, fortune, and fashion sense to avenging his parents ultimately figured out this whole optimism lesson. Maybe there’s hope for the rest of us yet.

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[Image: Woman via Shutterstock]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.