Confidence versus Optimism

Series: The Concept of Happiness

Confidence is a crucial aspect of happiness. In this article, I will resume my series on the “Concept of Happiness” with a focus on confidence.

As a reminder of the context, happiness comes from the achievement of your values. Not a value. Your values. You need to consistently achieve your values to be happy. This doesn’t mean that you feel positive emotions 100% of the time. Life is inherently challenging, and you will feel negative emotions when you encounter setbacks or when new threats manifest around you. But how much time you spend in that negative state depends more on how you react to it than on what caused it. To be happy, a good rule of thumb is that 80% of the time, you feel some positive, value-oriented emotion.

Some of these positive emotions are triggered by a positive evaluation of your past, in whole or in part. (That’s pride.) Some are triggered by the contemplation of your values and/or your achievements. (That would be love and joy.) And some are triggered by awareness of goals you believe you will achieve in the future. That’s confidence.


In contrast, I don’t think optimism is a key part of happiness. Optimism is the emotion that proceeds from believing you will succeed. You might ask, how is that different?

It’s different because optimism simply predicts a result; it doesn’t concern itself with what you can do to ensure that result. In contrast, confidence is about you and your skill, not whether you succeed per se. Confidence is the emotion that proceeds from the conclusion that you have sufficient skill that your current or proposed effort will result in success.

Suppose you are optimistic that your supervisor will give you a raise if you ask. As you anticipate the discussion, you will feel many positive emotions — excitement, hope, eagerness.

What happens if you don’t get it?

Disappointment. Frustration. Maybe anger if you think he was unjust. Maybe despair if you thought this was your only hope. Maybe fear if you had been counting on the raise to get you out of a financial bind.

There is nothing left of your optimism. It is smashed by events. The pain you feel will be magnified by those dashed expectations. The tumble from a high to a low is sudden and emotionally very disruptive.

How confidence is different

In contrast, if you went into the same situation from a place of confidence instead of (or in addition to) optimism, your confidence would mitigate this crash, substantially.

Confidence is always about you and what you have direct control over. Since you don’t have direct control over whether someone else gives you a raise, what would you be confident about, going into a discussion with your boss?

1. You’d be confident that your services were worth more money. You’d know enough about the market for your services and/or the monetary value of them to your employer to be certain that was true.

2. You’d be confident that you could explain the objective evidence that supported that conclusion. You wouldn’t get stuck or tongue-tied when your boss challenged you. You’d have already thought through his objections and prepared answers to them. You’d have ways to deal with any nervousness that might make it difficult to be clear and persuasive.

3. You’d be confident that if this particular person (your supervisor) wasn’t persuaded by your evidence or perhaps didn’t have the resources to give you a raise, you could find someone else who would. Persuading this particular person isn’t your only option.

4. And you’d be confident that you would continue to pursue your goal, until you were, in fact, being paid what you were worth. That — your willingness to keep pursuing a worthy, doable goal until you succeed — is entirely under your control.

As a result of this confidence, you’d see that getting paid more money is your goal, not his duty. This would reduce the pressure in the conversation significantly, making it more likely you’d have a constructive conversation. And since getting paid more was framed as your goal, you would be okay on general principles if your first attempt didn’t succeed. Qua goal, you would continue to pursue it until you found someone who agreed with you and could offer you more money. Or until you could start your own business and make it yourself.

What makes confidence so powerful is that it is based on your own sense of agency. To repeat: confidence is the emotion that proceeds from the conclusion that you have sufficient skill that your current or proposed effort will result in success.

You only reach that conclusion if you’re prepared for the good, the bad, and the ugly.

How confidence makes setbacks and failure less difficult

Going in with this kind of confidence makes all of the difference when things don’t turn out as you’d hoped. You may feel some of the same feelings as if you had had only optimism, but they will be mitigated by your confidence.

If you don’t get the raise, you’re still going to be disappointed. Of course. You’d prefer to increase your income the easy way. Get paid more now for this same job. No need to change your supervisor’s mind. No need to send out resumes. No need to talk to headhunters. No need to go out on your own as a consultant or start your own business. But you’ll be able to be philosophical, because you’d already framed this as the easy way, worth trying — not the only way.

In addition to being disappointed, you might feel frustrated if you weren’t able to convince your supervisor of your worthiness and/or of the need to find the money to keep you. But you might feel touched if he sees your point of view as he explains why it really is not possible for him to give you the raise.

If he was contemptuous of your arguments and dismissed your request, you would feel justifiably angry. This would increase your desire to initiate the next phase of the project, i.e., sending out your resume. You were already committed to more effort if this attempt didn’t succeed; your boss inadvertently reinforced your determination. This added motivation will help you double down on your effort, and thereby add to your confidence.

What about fear? I suggested that if you needed the raise to get your finances in order and it was urgent, you might feel fear if you didn’t get it. But this was assuming you had gone in with optimism, not confidence. In that case, you would have been relying on someone else’s action to get your finances in order.

Whenever you go into a conversation wanting it to go a certain way with no backup plan if it doesn’t, your desire has a tinge of desperation. That desperation often makes the conversation go sideways. One of the most important steps in preparing for a difficult conversation is making sure you are okay with whatever the other person might say. You can handle it. That is an indispensable source of confidence in any difficult conversation. (If you need skills in this area, I recommend my upcoming communication intensive.)

If you had addressed the fear head on, you would already have your Plan B in mind. That is one way that you would ensure you had confidence when you talked with your boss.

The bottom line: If you go into the conversation confident, what you won’t feel is despair. Regardless of how the conversation goes, you’ll continue to feel confident that you will eventually be paid what you’re worth. You’ll know that this person turning you down doesn’t change the basic situation. You are going to fight for your values.

The bottom line

I hope you can see the difference between drawing on optimism versus having confidence to motivate your action. If you ask for a raise just because you think you’re likely to get it, you’ll feel optimism. But not getting it can send you into a funk. Getting it will lead to only a short-term joy because all you did was seize an opportunity. Optimism does not help to sustain happiness in the face of either setbacks or success.

Confidence does. You get the confidence by doing the necessary work. If you ask for a raise because having this conversation with your boss is the best next step toward achieving your goal and you are prepared for the conversation, you will feel confident and any answer he gives will be helpful to you. When you come out of the conversation, you’ll feel a sustained pride in how you handled the process even if you haven’t yet achieved the desired outcome. And when you get the raise, you’ll know it was due to your own agency.

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