Many of us have a hunch—though it hasn't been proven beyond the shadow of doubt—that the only category of humanity more annoying than street mimes is relentless optimists. You know them: endlessly, unbearably sunny Pollyannas, clearly in denial about the world's harsh realities, skipping along blithely, head in the clouds, and no doubt (everyone else can't help hoping) about to step in something very, very unpleasant.
But optimism is much more than a reckless chirping through life. According to experts in the field, optimism is a high-voltage power tool in the life-skills toolbox. Researchers have characterized it as everything from a coping mechanism to a physical patterning of neurobiological pathways established in the earliest years of life. Susan C. Vaughan, MD, author of Half Empty, Half Full: How to Take Control and Live Life as an Optimist
, describes it as a psychological righting reflex. "It's like cats," she says. "When you throw them out the window, they land on their feet."
Optimists, in other words, know how to bounce back. Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
, explains it this way: "If a setback is thought about as temporary, changeable, and local, that's optimism. If it's thought about as permanent, unchangeable, and pervasive, that's pessimism." Victories are just the reverse: Optimists think of them as permanent and far-reaching; pessimists think of them as fleeting and situation-specific. For instance, if an optimist encounters a recipe she can't make work, she's likely to perceive the failure as external and temporary ("I'm just having an off day"), while the pessimist makes it internal and indelible ("I'll never learn to cook"). As Seligman explains, optimism serves as a crucial framework for relating to experiences. "It's the skeleton of hope," he says.If you approach life with a sense of possibility
and the expectation of positive results, you're more likely to have a life in which possibilities are realized and results are positive. You'll have a better chance of being promoted, fighting off the cold that's been going around, and attracting people to you—platonically and (hubba-hubba) otherwise. According to Seligman, pessimistic people are two to eight times more at risk of depression, a significant statistic in a country that seems a half step away from putting Prozac in its drinking water. Optimists are more productive at certain jobs—one company made sales-force hiring decisions based partially on the outcome of psychological tests. (People who tend to see themselves as responsible for positive situations are more resilient and more likely to bear up under repeated rejection.) And researchers have found that optimists are less likely to develop cancer or to die from heart disease.
Where are all these sunny-side uppers? Jeffrey E. Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, interviewed 40 of the world's most successful business executives for his book The Mind of the CEO
. Garten found every last one of them to be extremely optimistic. "I didn't find a lot of other common traits," he says. "For example, there's a conventional wisdom that these are all alpha people who exude aggressiveness and do nothing in life besides work. I didn't find that. But the one thing they had in common was how they all talked about the mountains they had to climb every single day." His subjects kept a perspective on the tasks at hand by placing them within a larger, long-term vision. "Their view was, I know I have succeeded in the past, and I'm quite confident that if I can look beyond today's problems to a point on the horizon, I know I'm going to get there."
How do people turn out this way? Lifelong optimism can be explained in one of three ways, says Seligman. About 50 percent is due to inheritable conditions, he says. Seligman circulated a questionnaire at an annual twins convention (in Twinsburg, Ohio) and found identical twins more similar than fraternals in levels of optimism and pessimism. "You might think that means there is an optimism gene," Seligman says. "But I don't think so. Identical twins are also similar in terms of physical traits: how they look, what talents they have—the things that can attract people to you and make you successful in life. And we know success tends to produce optimism and failure tends to produce pessimism."
Another source, Seligman says, is a person's mother: "There's a markedly high correlation between your level of optimism and your mother's, but not your father's." Although no one knows why this is, one hypothesis is that mothers still tend to be primary caretakers and therefore have a greater influence on their offspring. Another theory is that women have evolved to be more cerebral and expressive, so they're more likely to communicate their outlook, positive or negative.
"The third source is the reality of the bad events that happen to you," says Seligman. "If you want to be an athlete but you're born clumsy, you're likely to expect one setback after another. A sequence of failures naturally leads to the expectation of failure."
According to Seligman, almost everyone can learn how to be more optimistic, except, perhaps, those who are severely depressed and may benefit only from professional counseling or medication. A key component of optimism seems to be a willingness to look for the bright side, even if that means distorting reality. You can also begin to recognize and catalog the negative messages you tell yourself, then dispute those thoughts as if debating an external foe. Gradually, the new responses become automatic. (Get more exercises to improve your sense of optimism
Even though he teaches techniques for learning optimism, Seligman warns that no one should think of it as a panacea. "It doesn't give you wisdom, compassion, or a direct line to the truth," he says. Seligman advocates a "flexible optimism," which factors in risk, rather than a blind faith in positive outcomes. You don't want an overly optimistic pilot to look out the cockpit and say, "Oh, the weather doesn't look so bad from here. Let's not bother deicing the plane."