During the recent London 2012 Olympic Games an unparalleled mood of optimism and hope swept across the United Kingdom. Even people who don’t love sports could not help being drawn into the anticipation and excitement, sharing the heroism of the medal winners and the heart-break of those who missed out, whether by a millimetre or a mile. Who could not be impressed by the sight of beaming Mo Farah winning gold in the 10,000m, the inimitable Usain Bolt and the Jamaican sprint team in the 100m, 200m and men’s 400m relay, or the magnificent, multi-talented Jessica Ennis in the women’s heptathlon? With so many breath-taking moments and new Olympic and world records set, only the most hard-hearted and care-worn weren’t moved.
Power of Optimism
We now know a great deal more about the power of optimism and hope through positive psychology research. Contrary to what you might expect, optimists make continued efforts to reach their goals whereas pessimists are more likely to give up when the going gets tough. Hope and optimism predict many desirable outcomes including academic achievement, good relationships, physical well-being, and freedom from depression and anxiety. In fact positive psychologist Chris Peterson refers to them as velcro constructs because they have so many positive correlates and consequences.
What’s all the more astonishing about the recent wave of positivity and enthusiasm in the UK is that exactly a year ago the world’s media was full ‘Broken Britain’ headlines following the August 2011 riots in London, Manchester, and Birmingham. The British are not naturally optimistic. We know from several studies of national character strengths that hope and optimism fall quite a long way down the list. Linley and colleagues place them at about 20 out of 24 in the UK. We’re not alone in this: hope and optimism don’t feature as signature strengths for any of the 54 nations studied by Park and colleagues.
Moving from Pessimism to Optimism
So how has it been possible for a population to move from pessimism to optimism in a relatively short space of time? The feel-good factor we’ve experienced this summer may be the result of focusing on what is going well for the UK rather than what is going wrong. The media play a significant part in this. From the stunning opening ceremony onwards there was positive wall-to-wall coverage of the Games on TV, radio, in print, and online. This was augmented by the somewhat unexpected sporting prowess of the UK team in events such as rowing and cycling. Having been fed a media diet of failing footballers, cricketers, and tennis-players for years, to find out that there is an enormous amount of home-grown talent in such an array of Olympic disciplines has come as a huge surprise to many.
But this unusual wave of optimism isn’t just a result of sporting success. Aside from winning many more medals than anticipated, other aspects of the Games have won admiration, approval, and respect from around the world: the support and encouragement shown by British fans for sportsmen and women of all nations, the upbeat atmosphere, the efficient organization, and the boundless good humour and enthusiasm of the 70,000 Olympics volunteers (a.k.a ‘Games Makers’) over the two weeks of the games.
Our typical down-beat, self-deprecatory, complaining manner (almost!) disappeared for the 17 days of the Games. Instead, we took the opportunity to come together in support of positive endeavour and achievement, to watch together in awe as new world and Olympic records were set, to cheer and celebrate as we witnessed a spectacular performance, to commiserate together when things didn’t turned out as we hoped, and above all to show our appreciation for the highest standards and performance in sport that we will ever see in this country in our lifetime. It was a remarkable demonstration of human endeavour and achievement. As Mo Farah put it immediately after winning the 10,000m gold medal, “It’s all hard work and grafting…It’s been a long journey grafting and grafting, but anything is possible”. (Grafting is a Northern English expression for working hard and making a real effort.)
Now that the Olympic Games are over, many have been putting their minds to the vexing question of the ‘Olympics Legacy.’ Most of the debate has focussed on how to encourage British children and young people to aspire to sporting greatness. The UK government has promised to fund elite athletes up to the 2016 Games in Rio. Of course sport should play a more important role in the school curriculum, and yes, for some people, sport does change lives. But I think this is missing the point. It’s almost as if, in the past, before the 2012 Olympics, our mindset had been one where we simply hadn’t tried very hard (not just in sports but in other domains as well), giving us a ready-made excuse for not succeeding. The real legacy of the Olympic Games isn’t a sporting one, it’s a psychological one.
It’s Cool to Work Hard
Those 17 days have shown us that it’s not just about winning medals or breaking records, or even about successfully organizing and running one of the world’s biggest-ever events enjoyed by millions across the globe. What we in the UK have experienced first-hand by participating even just as spectators is that it’s cool to be seen to try hard and be self-disciplined, that celebrating our achievements rather than bemoaning our losses can bring us closer together, that we can and should be more confident in our ability to make a difference, and that we can be optimistic that we can do the same in the future.
Interestingly, immediately after the closing ceremony France’s Le Monde newspaper was quick to break up the party atmosphere by pointing out that when the party’s over, “…Britain will face the daily realities again, the economic crisis, racial and social divides, the scandals which have rocked [London], they will all quickly return to front of stage.”
It was without doubt an extraordinary two weeks. The question for us in the UK is whether we can maintain and capitalize on that sense of Olympic optimism now that the games are over, the athletes have all flown home, and life is settling back to normal. As with the sporting legacy, only time will tell.
Linley, A., Maltby, J., Wood, A., Joseph, S., Harrington, S., Peterson, C., Park, N. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2007). Character strengths in the United Kingdom: The VIA Inventory of Strengths. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 341-351. http://personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/alex.wood/VIA.pdf
Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2006). Character strengths in 54 nations and the 50 US states. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 118-129.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2012 Olympic Gold Medal courtesy of Plashing Vole
Olympic Games Maker courtesy of Flickmor
Mo Farah courtesy of LondonAnnie
This article by Bridget Grenville-Cleave first appeared on Positive Psychology News on 30th August 2012.