Why it might be better to be an optimist

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Not having cable often means that I watch a lot of DVDs. I recently watched (re-watched) the episode of The Simpsons where Homer tries to scam people out of money with an auto-dialer. The phone message was as follows:

“Greetings, friend. Do you wish to look as happy as me? Well, you’ve got the power inside you right now. So, use it, and send one dollar to Happy Dude, 742 Evergreen Terrace, Springfield. Don’t delay, eternal happiness is just a dollar away.”

Only miserly Mr. Burns decides that he’d be much happier if he kept his dollar instead. Sadly, I think I would have done the same. I fully grasp the benefits of being optimistic. I have the data right in front of me, which I’ll show you in a moment. I just can’t seem to overcome that psychological block that says, “Careful. Don’t get your hopes up. Because when your hopes come crashing down and you land on your butt, it’s gonna hurt!” I almost feel like I’m tempting fate when I dare to hope. I can picture an alarm going off in the universe’s central control station.

“Uh oh. Looks like human 101128 is starting to hope again. How should we handle this, Captain?”

“All teams engage! Bring those hopes crashing down! Ruin her plans. Make her get dumped. Send her car in for another repair. All units head out!”

So I refuse to allow myself to hope, and don’t expect things to turn out right – which is what usually happens. I am a master of the worst-case scenario. I just can’t help but wonder, however, how my world might change if I *gulp* actually allowed myself to hope. I mean, look at all the advantages of being an optimist, based on data from our test:

  • Optimists are able to find the good in even the most disagreeable of people. An optimistic manager, teacher, therapist, life coach or sports coach, for example, would be better equipped to bring out the best in others, and even uncover untapped potential.
  • They can find something positive in difficult situations, whether it’s a lesson learned or an opportunity to grow. For example, if an optimist gets dumped, they might see it as a chance to get reconnected with themselves or with friends. If an optimist gets laid off, they might see it as the perfect opportunity to start the type of career they’ve always wanted to.
  • When times are tough they have access to, and make use of, social support.
  • They are able to keep a problem in perspective, and look at it from different angles in order to come up with the best solution. Ever notice how it’s easier to come up with a solution when you’re in a positive state of mind? That’s why a wise person always says that problems are less grim in the light of day.
  • They are comfortable being themselves.
  • They learn from their mistakes and failures.
  • They are able to calm themselves down when they are under stress.
  • They have an “internal locus of control” and believe that they can overcome a difficult childhood and rise above a disadvantaged background.
  • They are happy with their relationships.
  • They rate their physical health better and are less likely to have been diagnosed with depression.
  • They refuse to give up and will persevere in the face of obstacles.

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Personally, I’m a little torn about that last stat. While I admire tenacity, I think there are some benefits to giving up or putting an issue aside temporarily, if only to gain perspective. Perseverance is valiant; stubbornly struggling isn’t. When you’re fighting with a problem and gaining little headway, it might actually be a good idea to put it out of your mind temporarily and clear your head. In fact, many solutions come to us through “unconscious problem-solving”, i.e. when our mind is focused on something completely different. According to an article in the Huffington Post, Archimedes was taking a bath when a theory on how to measure density cropped up. Tesla’s alternating energy design popped into his head while he was taking a walk. Rowling’s idea for Harry Potter happened on a train ride, and Gertrude Stein got her inspiration while observing cows.

I don’t believe that a pessimistic outlook is something we are born with. There may be some degree of nurturing (in that having a pessimistic parent could influence a child’s outlook), but switching to a more positive frame of mind can be done. It will however, take a dedicated effort to pivot away from patterns of thinking that have become a habit. Here are some tips from a fellow pessimist (i.e. me):

  • Don’t try to repress negative thoughts. Let them sink in, but don’t leave them at that – milk them for relevant information. How do you really feel about a particular situation? Why do you feel that way? Does it really merit such a strong reaction? Could your outlook have an influence on how things are turning out? How could you change your perspective? If, for example, you are frustrated with your work situation, give yourself an opportunity to “vent”. Once you get all the negativity out of your system, take a deeper look and see what the real issues are. If you are feeling under-appreciated, what action can you take to feel better? Could you talk to your boss, learn to take things less personally, or find other ways to get the recognition you crave? Make a solid plan to either deal with your situation or move on.
  • Refuse to be a victim. Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, renowned author and noted expert on positive psychology, states that the feeling of being a victim leads to learned helplessness. If you blame your problems on other people or circumstances, you will avoid taking personal responsibility for your life. While it may be true that there are things beyond your control, the majority of what happens in your life is up to YOU. Life may throw you curve balls, but you’re the one who decides how to react to them.
  • Practice TSE. Pessimists see problems as permanent, pervasive and personal. Optimists view unpleasant events as temporary, specific, and external (TSE). Imagine, for example, a friend is upset with you for a comment you made. Instead of thinking “I’ve lost that friendship forever” (permanent), tell yourself that you will talk to her and clear it up, and in time your friend will probably see that you are sincere in your apology (temporary). Replace your reaction that you “always screw up good friendships” (pervasive) with “I shouldn’t have made that comment, but I am a good friend” (specific). Lastly, avoid dwelling on a thought like “I am an awful person” (personal). Instead, tell yourself “I’ve hurt my friend’s feelings and should address that” (external).

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