How a Little Dose of Optimism Can Benefit Us All
Optimism isn't the refuge of bubbleheads, argues Lise Funderburg; it's a scientifically proven way to get happier, healthier and even cat-nippier to the opposite sex.
Photo: Jacqueline Foss/Flickr/Getty Images
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."
Pessimism and optimism aren't mutually exclusive, agrees Edward C. Chang, 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.