In last week’s blog, I started a top ten list of traits that can act as a protective barrier against stress. Let’s continue:
Score for happy, non-therapy group: 63
Score for unhappy, in-therapy group: 43
I think when most people envision an optimist, they picture an airy, tree-hugging idealist with no common sense and no grasp of reality. Granted, extreme optimism, or optimism without a healthy dose of common sense, is dangerous. But if you want a true definition of optimism, you have to go to the father of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman:
The optimist believes that bad events have specific causes, while good events will enhance everything he does; the pessimist believes that bad events have universal causes and that good events are caused by specific factors. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe that bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback or a challenge, that its causes are just confined to this one case.
You may have noticed that the happy group only scored 63 on optimism. That’s because they have adopted why Seligman called “Flexible Optimism” which he describes here:
What I’ve become is what I call a “flexible optimist.” I can recognize the situations which call for optimism, and the situations which don’t call for optimism need a mercilessly realistic view of what’s going to happen. When I make that separation, if it’s one of the many situations in which the optimism skills are going to pay off, then I throw in my whole complement of optimism skills. It makes me better able to initiate different projects. But when I’m in a situation in which the cost of failure is very high, then what I want is merciless realism. In that case I revert to my usual “four in the morning” pessimism.
When the cost is small, use the optimism skills. On the other hand, the cost of failure can be very large, such as getting into an affair which will lead to divorce if your spouse finds out, or, as a pilot, having another drink at a party before a flight. You really don’t want optimistic pilots. When the cost of failure is large and catastrophic, you don’t want to use optimism skills. That’s the basic rule of thumb.
Score for happy, non-therapy group: 63
Score for unhappy, in-therapy group: 46
While there’s nothing wrong with turning to others during difficult times, we can sometimes use people as a crutch. The more you rely on other people to pull you up, the more dependent you become on external sources of motivation (and the less self-assured you are about your own capacity to overcome challenges). If you want a shoulder to lean on when you’re struggling that’s perfectly fine. But realize that like calluses, inner strength and resilience are developed through hardship and triumph.
Score for happy, non-therapy group: 76
Score for unhappy, in-therapy group: 60
I don’t think that Janis Joplin’s life was entirely happy, but every time I hear her bluesy voice sing out to me to “try just a little bit harder” I can’t help but get a boost. The matter is simple: You’ll accomplish very little if you’re not willing to try. Happy people are persistent. They’re perseverant. Most importantly, they approach every new task and challenge with the intention of putting in their best effort. And if they fail, they’ll pick up the pieces, learn what they can, and try again.
Score for happy, non-therapy group: 60
Score for unhappy, in-therapy group: 44
A random stranger who was trying to sell me something sketchy told me that if I don’t learn to trust people, I’ll never be happy. I’m not sure what annoyed me more: The fact that he felt the need to lecture me, the fact that he was right, or the fact that what he was trying to sell to me was actually legitimate. While happy people don’t give away their trust too easily (they want it to be earned), they are generally willing to place their faith in the good of others. Perhaps their belief in the goodness of humanity creates a sort of magnet in which they attract good, honest people to them. Whatever the case, I can attest to the fact that an unwillingness to trust other people can make the world a pretty lonely and scary place.
Score for happy, non-therapy group: 61
Score for unhappy, in-therapy group: 45
There are several reasons why I hate shopping, but my top three are the crowds, the lack of parking, and the pushy salespeople. I just can’t seem to assert myself with salespeople, which often means I leave a store with a purchase I didn’t want or with a sense of crushing guilt for saying “no”.
You have to be willing to set personal boundaries as to how you want others to treat you, and you have to be willing to speak up when people cross those boundaries. Otherwise, the resentment of always having to acquiesce to others will build up. And a build-up of resentment almost always finds its way out, one way or another.
“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was they key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”