Pessimism and optimism aren't mutually exclusive, agrees Edward C. Chang, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. He believes that the two can in some circumstances coexist and argues that pessimism shows up in the attitudes of certain groups, the result of life-shaping forces such as world events, socioeconomic circumstances, and culture. "I see myself as a pessimist," says Chang, whose family emigrated from South Korea to Brooklyn when he was 5 years old. Chang says his outlook is rooted in the Confucian emphasis on striking a balance in life—not being overly positive or negative. Chang also believes that his parents' experience as immigrants in a new, unknown land made them particularly cautious and inclined to prepare for the worst at all times.
Chang sees pessimism as a sensibility, not a biological trait or an automatic marker for depression. He believes it can serve as a viable strategy for a positive outcome. In his study of Asian-American college students, participants had above average levels of pessimism but, notably, no less optimism than European-Americans. Their version of pessimism was more elevated but not debilitating.
"I have a 1-year-old daughter," he says. "In some ways, I'm a naive optimist. I believe everything in her life will be wonderful and that she's going to be a beautiful, intelligent woman. But I can assure you that when the time comes for her to marry, I will use a pessimistic strategy to make sure the caterers show up, the musicians are on time, and that the outcome is positive. Say it's an outdoor wedding; even if an unexpected storm came through, I'd have plans B, C, and D ready."
Outcome is the point here: Beefing up your optimism isn't the ultimate goal, proponents argue, happiness is. According to research psychologist David T. Lykken, each of us has a happiness "set point." We've each been dealt a happiness hand, some of us with higher cards than others. But as Lykken points out in his book Happiness: What Studies About Twins Show Us About Nature, Nurture, and the Happiness Set Point, we can increase our potential for joy by taking steps to get involved with people, causes, and ideas. According to Seligman, one of the hallmarks of depression is self-absorption. And so optimism, with its emphasis on seeking and seeing what's good outside of ourselves and in the world, helps us take those steps.
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