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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 13/02/2006

Being optimistic isnít just about how we handle bad events. It is also about how we view good events and Iím convinced that as Scots many of us are particularly pessimistic when things go well. This means that in the face of good fortune we donít maximise the benefits Ė we minimise them. With such an attitude it is hard to really build on success. The thinking behind such pessimism isnít obvious and really needs to be teased out.

If we are optimistic about good events we believe that our good fortune will last whereas if we are pessimistic we believe it is just a one-off or something that's transitory. So if we pass an exam, win a match or have a run of good sales in our business, optimistic thinking means we see such success as lasting. Secondly, if we're optimistic when good things happen we also believe the good event isnít confined to this one thing but will be generally beneficial to other aspects of our lives. So if Iíve passed an English exam I might believe that Iím getting better as a student and enhancing my career prospects into the bargain. Being pessimistic, on the other hand, means marginalising the success or seeing it as restricted. "It was just one exam result. Nothing to get excited about." And lastly if Iím optimistic about good events I tend to take credit, or at least partial credit, for the good fortune. Somehow it reflects well on me. However, if Iím a pessimist and a good thing happens Iím much more likely to see it as simply as a fluke or a stroke of luck.

On Professor Martin Seligmanís Authentic Happiness website you can take a test to see how optimistic you are and your results make a distinction between how optimistic you are in the face of bad and good events. When I completed the test a couple of years ago I came out very optimistic in the face of bad events but not very optimistic about good events. And this is a pattern which a number of Scots have reported to me. It has also been evident on a number of courses when Iíve used a paper and pencil test as a large number of people have also said they appear to be more optimistic in the face of adversity than good fortune.

For a number of years Iíve been aware of a particularly Calvinist streak in my personality. If I catch myself savouring good fortune or simply feeling happy I am often aware of a rising anxiety as well as I sense that somehow it will have to be paid for in the future. I regularly mention this on talks and it is strikingly familiar to many of the Scots in the room.

Of course, itís also the case that many Scots are pessimistic about good and bad events. This is why the sense of being doomed is so evident in many areas of Scottish life. Just listen to how plant closures are reported in the Scottish press or the spin put on Scotlandís population decline. But the thing about being pessimistic in the face of good events is that it often doesnít appear as a variant of pessimism. It doesnít usually seem that negative or laden with doom or gloom but, nonetheless, it stops us building on what we could achieve. In other words, we caw the feet from ourselves. I wonder if this is something for Frank Hadden, Scotlandís new rugby coach, to ponder after the teamís next victory?

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